Managing Resistance to Change in the Workplace

“Resistance is thought transformed into feeling. Change the thought that creates the resistance, and there is no more resistance”Robert Conklin

The phrase “change is the only constant” is oft heard and repeated. However the resistance to change is also a reality and proves to be an extremely challenging and impenetrable problem and many companies and their leaders continually face it. There are many manifestations and reasons for resistance to change. Change is new and ‘unchartered territory’ and so the first and foremost reaction to it is fear and resistance. In companies, if any new practice, policy, strategy and such things are implemented suddenly and without keeping the employees informed, the resistance to change is inevitable and will manifest itself by attrition, lowered productivity, stress and workplace conflicts, negativity and dissatisfaction towards the company and other such highly detrimental consequences. No one likes to be forced or coerced into listening or complying and companies need to be mindful of this when trying to implement change. In any case, in today’s day and age, it is impossible for any company to function well if they don’t have the support of their employees.

When companies face resistance to change the normal reaction is that they expected such resistance. This is an assumption – rather they must focus on how the change was implemented – through buy-in or force. The fact is that it is not possible to never have change – it will take place on a daily basis in minor ways and also in more visible ways once in a while. Companies that are adaptable, flexible and innovative and have a workforce that believes in them will be able to face these changes better and will have fewer instances of resistance to change. It must be remembered that a change must be implemented keeping in mind the common and widespread interests and common good. By the number of instances of resistance to change, it would seem that companies are stuck in the vicious cycle of implementing change and then dealing with resistance. However, this is not necessary and if change is implemented meticulously and in an orderly manner, it can be indispensable to the progress and success of the company and its people.

As mentioned earlier, anything that is out of the ordinary, routine and ‘familiar’ settings will cause some amount of upset. Human nature is such that comfort and a feeling of being settled are important and anything that upsets these feelings will be resisted. Resistance to change therefore is the manifestation of the fear of the unknown, imagined stress and the resultant discord. Strangely, even if employees may not be completely happy and satisfied in their current situations, the resistance would still be there. Companies must be ready for resistance to change despite their best efforts. Managing such resistance is crucial for any company since not doing so can seriously affect staff morale and lead to lowered levels of performance. Internal strife and lowered work quality would inevitably lead to poor quality of customer service which would mean customer dissatisfaction and ultimately customer churn, which could well be the downfall of the company.

Before implementing a change, companies must first consider the reasons why the change would be unacceptable, in which portion of the employee base would it be centred and the volume of resistance they can expect. Pro-actively managing the expectations and needs of employees is essential if the expected outcome of the change is to be achieved. From studies, it is clear that resistance to change comes most from employees who have been in their current positions for a long time and have got used to working in a certain manner. The other set would be people whose job descriptions, titles and quantity of work would increase as a result of the change. Also, employees who expect that the change would lead to job relocation and a change in the reporting manager and lines of authority, would put up resistance to change. In addition, employees who have hitherto been extremely successful and well-rewarded in their current jobs would find it hard to accept any changes and would vehemently oppose it.

Given the above, it is not surprising that there would be resistance to change and it is the prime responsibility of the company and its leaders to manage each of these groups and their fears. Strategies and efforts to put these employees at ease and show them why the change is required is absolutely essential, in order to prevent the company from plunging in to a state of confusion and disruption. If the news of internal strife were to spread in the market, the reputation of the company could be seriously damaged and customers would much rather associate with a company that can manage its ‘affairs’ better.

When a company is running normally and as per routine, the leadership must proactively address the need and requirement to accept change. Employees must receive training and coaching to understand and look at change as a business imperative and that it is good. Such focus on managing change will ensure that employees are more amenable and open to it, if and when it does occur. Companies must encourage employees to ask questions and seek the advice of their managers and leaders on happenings in the company, rather than relying on office gossip, rumours and the ‘knowledge’ of their co-workers. The job description of most leaders and managers would have change management listed as one of the prime duties. Resistance to change from employees must be understood first as an emotional need to express discomfort, fear and apprehensions and hence cannot be treated as wrong. Rather than forcing people to accept changes, companies must look at ways by which to make the changes inclusive.

Forming teams from amongst the employee groups to handle change projects is a great way to include a large portion of the company and hence get buy-in. This will also help to reduce the intensity and amount of resistance to change and save the company from chaos that leads to breakdown of services. When people see their co-workers as part of a change process, they are more inclined to believe and support it. In addition, it is important for those implementing the change to deal with the emotional and social needs of the employees too. If the changes are about to affect their social status, relationship with colleagues and other such aspects, resistance to change should be expected. The need for the change, the long term positive effects and its impact must be clearly defined and communicated to all the ‘to be affected employees’.

Resistance to change also arises from a lack of knowledge, closed mind-sets and traditional ways of doing things. It is vital that the leaders of the company are completely open, honest and transparent about the reasons for implementing the change since any reason for distrust amongst employees can have serious repercussions. As mentioned, internal chaos would lead to panic among customers, investors and other shareholders and they would much rather choose another company to partner with rather than one that cannot manage their internal affairs and employees.

A company cannot run without its employees and hence it is the onus of the company to ensure that their needs are taken care of and that there are no disruptions in their personal and professional life. It would help if the change is implemented in a phased and controlled manner such that employees feel less threatened and more comfortable to work with and post the change.

Resistance to change, like change is a given. However, if change is properly managed and put across to the employees as a good and necessary requirement, there will be a lot more acceptance and cooperation. No change can be successful if it is seen as a flaw and something that is being forced. What changes have you implemented recently in your company and what was the result? Did you manage resistance to change well?

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