Overcoming resistance to change

Leaves changing colour

To change or not to change? It may be a good question – and it is certainly a question that every business must grapple with – but it has only one answer. 

Well, it does if you want your business to grow and thrive. And that answer is ‘to change’. You simply cannot afford to sit still. 

But how is change possible when there appears to be (so much) resistance?

Resistance to change is a leadership problem

Everybody wants to benefit from change, but few people actually want to change themselves. The path of least friction is for everything to remain the same, but that is not the reality of the world we live in.

The reality is that the world around us changes with increasing regularity. Which means organisations need to change at the same frequency just to keep up, let alone get ahead.

Resistance to change is a pressing problem for organisations, especially when change is happening so fast and so frequently. A critical mass of people who do not change can damage an organisation very quickly, and will certainly risk jeopardising any competitive advantage that it might have.

Therefore, as a leader, it is your responsibility to lead the change process, identify where there may be resistance, and deal with it quickly.

Why do people resist change so much?

Resistance to change can be for numerous reasons, but most commonly occurs for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Not knowing why change is necessary

  2. Being afraid of what change will mean

  3. Not seeing the clear benefits of the change

  4. Change not being led effectively

  5. Suffering from ‘change fatigue’.

For each reason there is a leadership solution, but your first job is to identify its root cause. So let’s take a quick look at what that may be in more detail...

1. Not knowing why change is necessary

Leaders can forget that people who are lower in the organisational hierarchy aren’t always aware of, or exposed to, the types of industry, political or social data that leaders live and breathe. 

Therefore, it is a common mistake to assume everyone knows what you know. Often, they do not and, even if they do, they might not understand the significance in an organisational context.

The crux of this is that people need to be motivated to change. 

For example, one of the biggest changes that most people make at some point in their lives is to diet or exercise more. Rarely is this decision made on the spur of the moment. There is usually a trigger – clothing that doesn’t fit, a health scare, a comment made – something that makes that person want to change. A motivation that they can recall each time they feel themselves slipping and wanting to order a dessert or putting off a visit to the gym.

Leaders need to be really clear about what needs to change and why. Some organisations will refer to it as the ‘burning platform’ as a way of creating a sense of urgency. 

However you frame it, unless people really understand why they need to change, they will always resist – simply because they have no (intrinsic) motivation.

2. Being afraid of what change will mean 

The fear of being left behind and not able to cope can sometimes manifest itself as anger and disruptive behaviour. This means the organisation – and particularly line management – need to support their people through the change process and help build employee confidence and capabilities.

Furthermore, if the communication around change is not clear and comprehensive this may create an information vacuum, allowing others to present their version of the future, which will almost certainly be inaccurate. 

We have all heard of the rumour mill. It’s human nature to try to figure out unanswered questions and fill in the blanks of our knowledge. And as these rumours spread, they quickly become facts to those who do not know any different. Left unchecked, opinions, rumours and gossip all become barriers to change.

The challenge for the leader is to:

  • Ensure that communication is clear and does not leave questions unanswered

  • Provide personal support and development within the change process where required, particularly if new skill sets will be needed.

Finally, feedback and open forums for discussion should be held regularly with small groups of people. In larger groups people can hide, while in a smaller group a good leader will notice if someone is holding back. 

These are opportunities to reinforce key messages, ensure that rumours are quashed, and that people feel supported as they go through the change process.

3. Not seeing the clear benefits of change

John Kotter, author of Leading Change, stated that one of the reasons that change fails is not planning for, or creating, short-terms wins:

'Real transformation takes time, and a renewal effort risks losing momentum if there are no short-term goals to meet and celebrate. Without short-term wins, too many people give up or actively join the ranks of those people who have been resisting change.'

Similarly, Andy Cave, a professional mountaineer, author and motivational speaker, describes his expeditions as a series of milestones that together 'get you up the mountain and back down again'.

The same principles should be applied to a change programme: a series of small changes that result in significant change over a period of time.

When change is not visible or even visceral, people assume that progress is not being made and they will quickly revert to old ways of working and behaving.

So, wherever possible, plan for quick wins and communicate and celebrate those wins. And use the goodwill and energy generated by them to propel the change programme forward.

4. Change is not being done or led effectively

Change is not just about the ideas or the new strategy. In fact, ideas and strategy are just words in a document until they are implemented, at which time they become ‘progress’.

As leaders, we all enjoy the strategising process of unrestrained thinking, but we can be less good at the implementation.

A key reason for change programmes failing is that nobody is managing the implementation, clearing roadblocks or ensuring that stakeholders aren’t confused about each of the initiatives. 

Instead, leaders and/or change teams do the analysis, create the recommendations, and get board approval. Then, usually without any context, they pass the approved changes down through the hierarchy, while they disengage and wait for the results.

It doesn’t matter how good the ideas are: without effective implementation, the chances of success are slim. Leaders must tackle the details of implementation and consider how the change can be implemented and what it will mean for teams.

5. Suffering from ‘change fatigue’

The reality is that change is not going to stop. There will always be aspects of any organisation that needs to change.

Big, organisation-wide, transformational change programmes might happen once every ten years depending on the sector you operate in. Therefore, change fatigue is rarely because people feel there is too much change. Rather, it’s usually because the change programme itself lacks focus, drive from the top and does not appear (to those ‘on the ground’) to be making any progress.

What’s changed?’, people ask. ‘What was all that about?

This is particularly true when leaders step back from the change campaign and fail to effectively communicate, to motivate and to support change. 

When this lack of progress, or ‘fatigue’ is finally noticed, it may then lead to a small injection of energy from leaders, which, in turn, manifests itself in the form of a ‘new’ campaign that has the same objectives as previous campaigns.

In Focus: Food retailer mini case study

When a major food retailer in the UK wanted to change the way that checkout staff interacted with customers, it launched a change programme with slogans, promotional materials and training programmes. 

Post-launch, the leadership teams did very little to maintain momentum and 12 months later, when customer satisfaction results had not moved, they launched another change programme with the same objectives but using a different slogan, different materials and a new training course. 

Again, it failed to embed or shift their scores because the leadership team stepped back once it was launched. 

On the third time of trying, leaders met with real resistance because everyone was suffering from change fatigue.

As leaders, to help avoid change fatigue you need to focus on five things:

  • Have a clear focus. Be clear about what needs to change and why.

  • Commit to leading the change and dedicate the required effort and time. Look to provide personal support and development whenever and wherever you can.

  • Create energy around the objectives. Plan for quick wins and communicate and celebrate those wins to help build momentum.

  • Be accountable and hold others to account for making progress. Avoid the ‘What was that all about?’ question.

  • Get involved in the detail. Implementation achieves results, strategies don’t.

Struggling to get buy-in for your organisational change programme? Get in touch to find out how As it is and Associates can help.