Is your team suffering from a case of resistance to change? We’ve probably all pushed back on change ourselves at some point. And I’ll bet you’ve probably seen it when trying to make a change in your team, too.
Unfortunately, change is all around us, is accelerating and won’t stop any time soon! We only need to look at the recent Covid pandemic to see how significant change can happen in the blink of an eye.
However for leaders, I find that often the most frustrating resistance to change occurs at a smaller scale. We know that industries, businesses and products are changing fast.
But really, the only way things change at all in the world is when individual people change.
What Is Resistance to Change?
Resistance to change is quite common in teams and organisations. If you look around your work environment, you’ll probably notice that there are constantly initiatives underway to implement change.
You might be replacing an ancient computer system with a fancy new one, or perhaps you’re developing a new service for your customers. Maybe the government has introduced a new law which means your people need to work in a very different way.
Whatever the change, I find that resistance to change generally shows up in a few different ways:
- Avoidance. People ignore the change, find ways to work around it and essentially just do what they were doing before.
- Push back. People will actively resist the change, refusing to engage with it at all. They continue in the old way, or stop doing certain tasks.
- Undermining. On the surface, people may appear to encourage the change. But really, they are finding subtle ways to work around it or influence others to resist the change too.
When people resist change by pushing back, this is fairly obvious – you can observe it. Avoidance and undermining can be more subtle.
Sometimes, you may not see clear visible signs of resistance to change, so you need to keep your eyes and ears open!
Learn More: Change Leadership is Not “My Way or the Highway”.
So How Can We Handle Resistance to Change?
Handling resistance to change is not easy, and it can be very frustrating.
After all, you’re the boss. Shouldn’t people just do what you say? Just for once, why can’t your people just do what you want without questioning or pushing back on everything?
I hear you.
But before we get onto the ways to handle resistance to change, let’s take a pause to remember:
When people push back or question your actions, this can be a good sign that they are engaged and want to contribute to the success of the workplace.
Obviously, it’s a fine line. It’s good for your leadership to be tested occasionally. But if your team members are actively rebelling, that’s not so great.
Now let’s look at some of the ways to overcome this resistance to change you might be seeing.
1. Acknowledge the Fear and Discomfort
If you’ve been working for a while, you will have experienced a lot of change. During my career I’ve done quite a bit of consulting and project work, which is all about implementing change and going into the unknown.
Sometimes, I’ve had to give myself a bit of a kick in the butt. I’ve had to tell myself to remember that just because I’m used to dealing with change all the time, it doesn’t mean everyone else is.
Imagine the person who has been at your company for 20 years. They’ve been working in a similar role the whole time. They like the way it’s working right now, and you want to go and change it.
For many people who have been in an organisation for a long time, it becomes like a second home. Now you want to go in there and change their home. You want to tear down a wall, paint the ceiling and create a brand new outdoor living area.
Sometimes it’s good to acknowledge that feelings of fear and discomfort are common when things are changing. You might even share with your team how the change has made you feel uncomfortable, but you think it will be better in the long run.
A little empathy can go a long way, and showing you’re not just ignoring the feelings can be helpful. Some leaders have a tendency to be “gung-ho”, championing the change and never acknowledging that it might be difficult.
This can make people feel like you just don’t get it, and you’re a merciless change robot sent from the future. Open up, acknowledge the discomfort and uncertainty to help break down some of the resistance.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #65: How to Deal With Uncertainty and “Working In the Grey”.
2. Motivate Your People In Multiple Ways
It can be helpful to clarify what the change really means for your people. Once again, it comes back to the “why”. Why should they really care about the change?
People are generally motivated in two ways:
- Away-from motivation: This is motivation driven from getting away from a source of fear or anxiety. For example, running away from the tiger that is chasing us. You don’t care where you go, you just want to get away.
- Toward motivation: This form of motivation is about moving towards something that we want, rather than away from something we don’t.
The problem with away-from motivation is that it is undirected. That is, we don’t care where we run to, as long as we are getting away from the source of the problem.
Away-from motivation also loses its impact after a while. When you’re far enough away from the source of the problem, you’ll stop feeling so motivated. When the tiger is no longer chasing, you’ll stop running. This is when toward-motivation can help.
Toward motivation helps people strive towards a goal and move in the desired direction. Combining the two types of motivation can be helpful to create lasting change, rather than applying motivation based on fear that quickly wears off.
Finding Your Away-From and Toward Motivations
So the trick is to find both forms of motivation for the change you are undertaking. Let’s look at a quick example from a health insurance company.
Back when I was growing up, pet insurance was never available. Now, it’s quite common for most insurers to offer it as a product. So let’s imagine it’s the year 2000. You work for an insurance company and you need to introduce this change and release your new pet insurance product.
Your away-from motivation might be, “If we don’t introduce this product, we will be left behind as other companies are offering it. We’ll lose customers and then our organisation will be at risk.” Scary, right?
Now, the toward-motivation looks different. It might be that we are “Creating an insurance product so good that pet-loving customers will flock to us and abandon our competitors. It will be the best on the market”.
You get the idea. You want to create a compelling reason that we need to change (to get away from something bad like a tiger) and a reason why we want to change (to achieve something great).
So for your situation, what are your away-from and toward motivations? Another helpful question to ask yourself is, from the perspective of your people … “What’s in it for me?”. If you can highlight the opportunities, you may just spark some enthusiasm.
Learn More: Motivation at Work: Moving Your People Along the Motivation Spectrum.
3. Remove the Old Way of Operating
The first two points have been a little more about the “softer” side of resistance to change. This point is a little different. It focuses on making sure it will be difficult to slip back into the old way of operating, once we have the change in place.
Obviously the way to do this will be different depending on your situation. If you wanted your team to use a new system, then you could remove access to the old system, so nobody can use it any more.
If you wanted your people to follow a new process, then you would look for ways to prevent them from using the old one. Perhaps you would create new forms, and remove the old forms so nobody can fill them out.
It’s a simple concept. Where possible, reduce the chances of people slipping back into old habits.
4. Introduce Consequences for Failing to Change
One question I like to ask my coaching clients when they are dealing with issues of team performance or behaviour is:
Why should your people even bother to change?
It’s the same as yelling at a dog for jumping up, but then feeding it the treat anyway. In other words, if we don’t reinforce the change that we want to see, we can expect to see no lasting change at all.
If the change is important, then there must be a consequence for failing to adopt it.
Perhaps it comes down to delivering some constructive feedback. Or maybe it’s a black mark on the next performance review. The consequence might be greater oversight over the work the person is doing.
There are many ways to introduce consequences, and you’d need to align them to how your workplace functions. If there is no meaningful consequence for failing to adopt a change, then in essence you are rewarding resistance to change.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #55: The Importance of Consequences for an Effective Workplace.
5. Have an Open Discussion About the Resistance to Change
As is often the case, if you’re not getting traction with your change, it can be a good idea to have an open discussion about the situation with the person involved.
You can start by discussing what you have observed which tells you that there is resistance. The next step is often simply to listen to what the person tells you.
You may hear some information you weren’t expecting. Often we come up with our own assumptions about what is going on for our people, but they often aren’t true.
You never know, you might even hear some great reasons why this is a problem for the person, and you can work towards a solution.
These conversations are not easy. Sometimes it can take a while for people to open up to you about the challenges.
If you approach the conversation from a place of empathy and trying to achieve a positive outcome for you and the other person, you may just make a breakthrough.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader’s Difficult Conversations eBook.
Resistance to change is a natural part of any workplace. It’s not a problem specific to your team, and it’s certainly not a sign that something is wrong with your people.
With some persistence and thoughtful leadership, you’ll be able to create a compelling case for your people to make the change you need them to.
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