Resisting Organisational Change


Workers who challenge change can offer insights into organisations’ operations

One of the factors most likely to derail a company’s plans for change is employee resistance: employees may resist the unknown, being dictated to, or management ideas that do not seem feasible.

New-year resolutions almost always fail because people run out of willpower long before the three months required to cement a new habit. This shortcoming may be disappointing but its consequences are personal. It’s a whole different ball game when change failure affects an organisation, and it happens a lot – about 70 per cent of all organisational change initiatives fail.

There is a perception that organisations are fixed and stable when, in reality, they are constantly changing whether people notice it or not. However, once the change flag is officially hoisted, people get nervous and reactions range from silent and sullen to out-and-out resistance.

“We don’t resist change as such. What we’re actually resisting are the losses associated with change, such as the loss of a job or status or a workspace. We don’t talk about these losses very much, because change is generally framed as something really important and very positive,” says Dr Annette Clancy, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the UCD College of Business.

One of the factors most likely to derail a company’s plans for change is employee resistance. It is a completely human and natural response but largely seen as something negative to be rooted out.

Emotional impact

“The emotional impact of change is something we don’t talk enough about and that’s generally why people are resistant to it,” says Clancy.  “We’re not good at dealing with the very complicated and uncomfortable emotions that come up around the process of change, and that’s really what resistance is telling us. I’m moving out of my comfort zone and it’s making me feel more anxious than I’m comfortable with.

“There is no place to go with these feelings in organisations, which are generally perceived to be non-emotional entities.

“But resistant people are often protecting something and, if managers are curious about what is so important that it needs to be defended to this extent, it can tell them a lot about their organisation. Resistant people are often giving very positive feedback and being curious can be much more productive than being angry or heavy-handed.”

Very often the strongest resistance comes from the most senior members of a team. This is not by accident. They are generally those who know the most about the organisation’s day-to-day operations and how practical any change may be. Furthermore, if they are long-serving, the chances are they have “heard/seen it all before”. However, their buy-in is critical and this means providing a forum where they can speak frankly at the planning stage of any change initiative.

The consequences of not involving or listening to them can lead to dysfunctional team behaviours such as people not talking to each other and becoming obstructionist or highly defensive of their patch.

In an article, “Decoding Resistance to Change”, in the Harvard Business Review, authors Jeffrey and Laurie Ford say “to build participation and engagement in your change initiative, simply ask employees for their ideas on how to make the change work. By using their good ideas, you stoke their enthusiasm, sense of ownership and commitment to the change.”

The authors also warn senior managers to be aware that change can have a bigger impact on the jobs of people lower down an organisation than at the top and that they too need to be allowed to voice their views. “Don’t suppress dialogue about what the change will involve,” the authors say.

Received truth

In a study, Challenging ‘Resistance to Change’, Eric Dent and Susan Galloway Goldberg of George Washington University set out to examine how the idea that resistance to change is automatic (and something managers must overcome) has become a received truth.

“The belief that people do resist change causes all kinds of unproductive actions within organisations,” they say. “It is time that we dispense with the phrase ‘resistance to change’ and find more useful and appropriate models for describing what the phrase has come to mean – employees are not wholeheartedly embracing a change that management wants to implement.

“Employees may resist the unknown, being dictated to, or management ideas that do not seem feasible from the employees’ standpoint. However, in our research we have found few or no instances of employees resisting change.”

Clancy says that while we like to think of organisations as rational, “they are, in fact, emotional places fraught with the muckiness and complexity of being human”. Managers need to recognise this when planning the change process. “If people are not given time and channels through which to process change, you get the informal processing around the water cooler that leads to increased cynicism and resistance and a parallel conversation that it not helpful,” Clancy says.

“Managers need to see resistance as a resource, because people don’t invest emotional energy in something that is not important to them. It’s also good to position change as a process that can be revised and revisited, not as a radical shift in how things have always been done around here.”

Why people resist change

  • Uncertainty and fear
  • Threat to status or job
  • Lack of understanding

What can help overcome it

  • Being clear about why change is needed
  • Allowing plenty of time for discussion and participation
  • Offering education/ training

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