managing resistance to change

Managing Resistance to Organizational Change

Published: April 30, 2021
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It’s common knowledge that if there’s one thing in life and business that never changes, it’s the inevitability of change. Organizations need to evolve in order to compete and reach new heights, and having a structured approach to managing change, even in the event of unexpected challenges, is just another part of ensuring your business can survive and thrive.

Unfortunately, no matter what shape a change initiative takes, it is almost guaranteed to create opposition. Humans are creatures of habit, and there’s a high likelihood that numerous parties in a business will cling to the status quo for one reason or another, whether for the sake of ease or because they feel their interests are being threatened.

If a change initiative is handled poorly, it is likely to generate even more resistance from those at different levels of a business, including employees, managers, executives, and high-level stakeholders. This can end up creating roadblocks for the initiative or may even limit the resulting benefits.

As such, change management frameworks such as APMG Change Management and AgileSHIFT place a great deal of emphasis on managing resistance to change. This is also true for many of the world’s leading change and transformation management specialists.

But given how diverse resistance can be, what is the best way to equip your company to deal with it? In this article, we look at proven methods and insight for managing resistance to change.

Why do people resist change in business?

There’s a simple answer to this question: because change ultimately affects people

Any large-scale business transformation project is virtually guaranteed to impact those who keep the business running. Even if there are no tangible effects, it can still create backlash due to people’s perceptions or concerns over what is happening.

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Some of the most common reasons include:

  • Threats to jobs – Restructuring a company or adopting new practices or ways of working can create a great deal of uncertainty. Employees may believe that their skills are becoming redundant or that their positions will be threatened. Indeed, rumors about creating new roles and downsizing teams or departments are not uncommon when employees first hear that major changes are on the way
  • Lack of trust – If employees have little trust in managers and executives, they are far less likely to feel confident about change initiatives. In an environment of uncertainty, simply announcing and enforcing change with blunt force can make things even worse. For the sake of retaining valuable talent, creating and encouraging an environment of trust is essential
  • Lack of awareness and communication – If employees, executives, managers, or stakeholders have not been adequately informed about why, when, and how the change will take place, they will likely kick up a fuss about it. This is especially true if they do not understand the projected benefits and how they will be affected. When it comes to resistance, uncertainty is the biggest catalyst you will need to contend with
  • Timing – If change comes at the wrong time, such as during a stressful period or following a significant announcement, it will likely throw up several red flags. Even if the change is required, such as if new legislation has been announced, it cannot be taken for granted that everyone will simply play along
  • Priorities – Every group in a business has priorities, whether it be the job security and advancement of employees, the financial benefits stakeholders stand to gain, or anything else. Everyone will want to know how their concerns will be addressed in the change strategy. If anyone feels threatened, they may not only resist change but actively sabotage it

How to manage resistance to change

Unfortunately, resistance to change in some form or another is often inevitable. The mistake that many companies make is treating this as an excuse to simply force the changes through, treating any collateral damage as “just the price of doing business”.

It hardly takes a paradigm-breaking thought leader to explain why this idea is full of holes. In truth, simply taking a more structured approach to planning, implementing, and reinforcing change can have tremendous benefits in terms of alleviating resistance to and enhancing the results of organizational transformation.

Luckily, ‘Change Management’ as a well-defined discipline is becoming far more widespread, and there are several demonstrably effective frameworks associated with it. These include:

  • AgileSHIFT – This option offers best practices for guiding both individuals and wider organizations. It focuses on the co-creation of value and fostering corporate cultures that optimize ‘enterprise agility’ in a way that leaves them flexible enough to get as much value as possible from change initiatives. The AgileSHIFT syllabus also emphasizes communication across all teams and departments so that all are aware of the importance and value of proposed changes as well as how they can help facilitate them
  • APMG Change Management – Change Management takes a strategic approach, offering insight for dealing with different parties, including organizations, individuals, and stakeholders. It also emphasizes the importance of various cultural roles within a change process

Both frameworks offer valuable best practices for encouraging and enabling changes, but what are the actual processes involved in managing resistance?

In a 1979 article (recently republished and updated in 2018), ‘Choosing Strategies for Change’, Leonard Schlesinger and John Kotter outlined six ways to manage resistance to change:

  • Educational and communication – Let employees know why the change is taking place and explain its value. Education and communication should be utilized throughout the project, as it helps the change team be both proactive (designating when to provide updates and take feedback) and reactive (taking advantage of communication channels to facilitate solutions to unforeseen problems)
  • Participation and involvement – Employees should be invited to meetings and engaged with via change exercises. This will get them involved in the project itself and demonstrate how they can facilitate and benefit from it
  • Facilitation and support – Speak regularly with managers and supervisors so they can report to employees on project progress. They can also support their employees on more of a ground level to transform resistors into supporters
  • Negotiation – Which stakeholders are capable of or may wish to derail a project? This should always be worked out in advance! Many stakeholders may need to be given the right incentive, and it will be up to the change team to communicate the benefits of the change in a way that corresponds with each stakeholder’s priorities
  • Co-optation and manipulation – Once the above methods have been tried, if someone is STILL resisting, it may be worth offering a symbolic olive branch. For example, you could consider giving a troublesome manager a place on a change management team
  • Explicit and implicit coercion – This is very much a last resort. To make sure the change project can go ahead as planned, it may be necessary for an executive to step in and forcefully end any resistance
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Schlesinger and Kotter state: “Many managers underestimate not only the variety of ways people can react to organizational change but also the ways they can positively influence specific individuals and groups during a change. And, again, because of past experiences, managers sometimes do not have an accurate understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the methods with which they are familiar.”

Obviously, a lot has changed since 1979, but this insight still holds true. Most change management frameworks continue to emphasize the importance of communicating with employees and letting them know how they can expect to benefit from changes and why their fears are misguided. The same goes for facilitating and supporting employees to alleviate the stress and difficulties of coping with the change. Negotiation, too, is crucial, especially with stakeholders who have the power to end initiatives outright. For all parties, change benefits need to be explained in terms that resonate with their own particular goals.

How can I be prepared for resistance to change?

It is worth keeping in mind that change is a complex organism. Initiatives involve varied and complex factors each and every time, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

As the article says: “In approaching an organizational change situation, managers explicitly or implicitly make strategic choices regarding the speed of the effort, the amount of preplanning, the involvement of others, and the relative emphasis they will give to different approaches. Successful change efforts seem to be those where these choices both are internally consistent and fit some key situational variables.”

In other words, being aware of the options open to you and knowing which variables to consider will be your best approach. For many, this means studying and adopting a change management framework or simply creating one that suits your business and developing it further with each iteration (being careful to learn from mistakes along the way).

Resistance can be difficult to deal with, but it can be dealt with. You simply need to be proactive with planning, ensuring the change takes nobody by surprise. You should also work to alleviate fears and concerns as soon as possible by predicting where resistance will come from and taking the necessary steps to deal with it. Most importantly, you must continue to reinforce the change, even once an initiative has been completed, to ensure that everything sticks.

Interested in learning more about change management? Visit the Good e-Learning website to take a look at our Change Management and AgileSHIFT courses, or contact a member of our team today!