Why do we resist change? Organisations, whilst theoretically wrapped around processes and structures, are about people.
And people can be a bit wobbly around the edges. In other words, they know what they like, and they like what they know. In my role as a leadership and organisational development consultant, I’ve worked with several industries across four continents – so there’s not much in the way of push-backs that I’ve not seen first-hand.
But what lies behind resistance to change? Why do we do it, and what can you do about it?
Being curious about how people think, how they work and what makes them tick helps me understand how feelings and emotions govern everything we do. And, in more ways than most of us can imagine.
This much I know – there’s a consistent inconsistency in all of us. Apart from being the perfect excuse to use the word “oxymoron”, what I mean is this: As human beings, we’re each as distinct from each other as we can possibly be. Yet, at the same time we’re so extremely alike. And in my opinion, there’s one major characteristic that, like the letters in a stick of Brighton rock, runs through most, if not all of us:
Resistance to change.
Generally, we like things to stay the way they’ve always been, thank you very much. There’s nothing that needs adjusting or modifying, I’m happy with the way everything is working. Honestly, it’s all good. A particular role, or roles, conducted a certain way, within specific parameters, may be wrapping up individuals and teams in your organisational comfort blanket. Reassuring zones of security, perhaps.
And yet, as I covered in a previous article about Relational Agility – a unique approach that governs most of what I do – enterprise-wide change, whether big or small, is inevitable.
Organisational shifts are going to happen. We simply cannot avoid them.
Because in the 21st century, our working environment demands transformation. Developments in technology and product development, as well as market globalisation push onto organisations the need for a new way of doing things.
For growth, and sometimes even survival, change is an imperative. It’s business as usual.
What Exactly is Change?
Let’s touch on a few examples here.
Organisational change is about moving from one state to another, ideally through a series of bought-into-transitions. For instance, a company-wide restructuring, a redundancy or crisis management programme, a change in leadership, mergers and acquisitions – the list is a long one.
In my career, I’ve gone through a great deal of change myself, with all the accompanying emotions and reactions that I’m going to list here, so at the risk of using an overworn phrase, I really have walked the walk.
Why do we resist change?
What emotions are your employees experiencing?
- A lack of control. Decisions are being made for me. I’m being asked to do something without my agreement.
- Uncertainty. What does this change mean for me? How is it going to affect how I work? If I do this, what does the future look like?
- Shock. I was not expecting this. No one told me. Why didn’t I know about it?
- Too much. I’ve been home-schooling my children, my partner’s just been made redundant, my Mum is not well. And now you’re presenting me with this? This isn’t OK. I’m “full”.
- Self-confidence issues. I’m not good enough to take on more responsibility. I don’t have the skills to work at a higher level.
- Losing face. (This is about perceived influence.) Surely, this is looking like a demotion? What will my team think?
- Frustration. Don’t you think I’ve already got enough to do? I’m not taking on any more work.
- A ripple effect. If this happens, what will happen to that? And how will that other thing be affected?
Your team members may even stand firm, seeing any development as “political”, and proof-positive that you’re just not up to the task. Nobody said this was easy, but your role in leadership is an important one. Now is the time to recognise that implementing change will push you up against people’s feelings first and foremost. And, to the pressing need to relate fully to the uncomfortable scenarios going through their minds.
These are sliding-scale feelings, rather than on-off switches.
As an experienced leadership coach, I know that genuine empathy and great listening skills could be your saving grace. Communicate clearly with your team. Ask them why they’re opposing these much-needed changes. Then, make sure that you hear, acknowledge and understand their concerns. Compassion and collaboration are your managerial super-hero tools of the trade in practically everything you do, each and every day.
But, here’s the thing:
Resistance to Change can be a Good Thing.
Let me talk you through this.
Kicking back against new working practices, an office re-location, a different CRM, the introduction of new products or services and so on, shows that your employees care. And, that they care a great deal.
Their work is meaningful to them, and they want to perform well. Transformation can look a little sinister to those on the receiving end of it. Thus, you could conclude a hostile reaction is a positive sign. The distinction between active resistance to protect a much-loved job, rather than just “being difficult” is a strong one, and something you need to look out for.
Conversely, if nobody minds, then nobody cares. And, apathy is red flag and a warning sign. Passive acceptance implies disengagement, and switch-off; your employees going through the motions, without motivation or energy.
Healthy systems stand up to change. A defensive response – assuming that you work in partnership and communicate well – could operate in your favour.
Time to Think Differently?
As a leader, changing your views on resistance is an exceptional way to help you be the best you can be. Knowing and understanding the reasons behind any opposition you encounter creates a foundation for a genuine, empathetic approach – with outstanding listening skills.
With the right mindset, you can ask the people involved in organisational change to come with you on the journey – which, after all, starts with a single step.