How to manage resistance to change

February 7, 2018

Open any organisational change textbook, pick up any research article, listen to organisational change consultants and one common theme arises. Change is going to be painful because change evokes resistance. The aforementioned books, articles and consultants offer neat models of change from Lewin’s famous Freeze, Unfreeze, Refreeze to more contemporary models focussed on managing and overcoming resistance at an individual level. There is hope though, recent research suggests that people don’t resist change: They resist the losses associated with change. Think for a moment…if your organisation is going through a period of restructure and you are one of the lucky one who hasn’t lost their job should you embrace or resist the change? Chances are, the former. If, however, your retention is based on having to travel an additional 100km to/from work and that journey means you can’t see your child in the morning or put them to bed in the evening, are you still feeling pleased? I bet that you are now feeling somewhat resistant to the new organisational design, not because you haven’t lost your job, but because it impinges on your role as a parent.


Most models of organisational change are linear, rational and assume that change unfolds in a sequence of steps. Resistance to change is expected as part of the process and ideas for addressing resistance range from clear communication, incentivisation and education to less productive interventions such as manipulation. Very few (if any) models of change ask ‘what is this resistance telling us?’ Is it any wonder that approximately 70% of change processes fail?


How then do we manage resistance to change?


1 Resistance is a symptom


Think of resistance as a symptom rather than as a problem. Resistant people are generally trying to protect something that is important to them. More interesting questions are ‘what is so important to this person that they need to protect it in this way?’ and ‘what is it about our change process that requires people to protect themselves in this way?’ Approaching resistance from this perspective allows for curiosity rather than blame and creates the space for a more compassionate rather than critical conversation.


2 Reframe the conversation


Instead of expecting the disruption of resistance and finding ways to neutralise its effects try looking for the losses associated with the change process. Change may be inevitable but not all change processes are experienced as positive. Reframe the conversation you have with your colleagues. As well as promoting the benefits of change ask also about the losses people associate with the change. It may be personal (as in the example above) it may be professional (will I lose my status in the company; will jobs be lost? How do I talk about this decision with my team?). In each of these scenarios there are facts to be transmitted as well as feelings to be acknowledged.


3 Acknowledge the losses


Give specific time and resources to acknowlede the feelings associated with change. This can range from time during a team meeting to specific interventions with consultants. In one company with which I worked the manager organised a series of workshops for senior staff who had to communicate the bad news about job losses as a result of a restructure. The senior staff knew their colleagues intimately and were afraid and unsure of how to communicate the bad news. Bringing in professional assistance for the senior staff helped them to deliver the news and process the complex feelings associated with the decision before and after the fact.


This article was first published in Accountancy Ireland

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