Employee resistance is one of the biggest challenges companies face when implementing change. Whether change is driven by organisational restructuring, improvements in processes, digital transformation across the business or adjustments in strategy or culture, the ability to successfully adapt is essential for a business to survive.
Resistance to change is reluctance or opposition, from individuals or groups, when faced with changes to established routines, processes or organisational structures. The typical organisation today has undertaken five firmwide changes in the past three years and nearly 75% expect to multiply the types of major change initiatives they will undertake in the next three years. 50% of change initiatives are a clear failure. A further 16% have mixed results. Which means two-thirds of change initiatives don’t really work.
There are both societal and psychological reasons why we, as humans, can find adapting difficult, but put simply – people don’t like change.
Reasons for resistance to change
The first step in managing resistance to change is to understand why people are so hesitant about doing things differently. Whether that shows up as foot-dragging, inertia, sabotage or full-on rebellion – chances are the root cause will be one of the following:
1.Loss of security or status
For those that are responsible for bringing in new ways of doing things, change can feel like an exciting development. But it’s naïve to think that everyone else in the company will feel the same. For many, your change feels harmful to their place in the business.
People value a sense of autonomy and transitions can make them feel like control has been taken away from them. Especially when a department has been operating for a long time without ‘interference’ from other parts of the company, employees can feel that they’ve lost part of their territory. And their reaction to that may be as primitive as it sounds! The primitive part of their brain – the amygdala – may switch into flight of fight response in the same way it would when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger.
It’s also worth considering that the changes coming in might feel like a loss of face for some. Change is a departure from what has been done before and employees that were strongly associated with the last ‘version’ are likely to feel defensive.
2.Fear of the unknown
Even if they don’t feel “pushed out”, individuals may still find themselves feeling anxious about what the change entails; what it will mean for them and their colleagues, how it will change their working routines and what it will mean for the going forward.
The amygdala in the brain can react very strongly to uncertainty. Even a small or positive change can make people feel anxious, confused and resistant which – although natural and understandable – is damaging in a workplace environment.Change often introduces new and unfamiliar elements such as new software or hardware, new leadership, a new company culture or different routines, and these elements cause the amygdala to activate and elicit a cautious or defensive response.
It’s also natural that there will be concerns about competence – ‘Can I do it?’ – if their role or routine is markedly different to the one they were comfortable with. Change is strongly resisted when it makes people feel stupid. They may be worried their skills will be obsolete and that they won’t be able to keep up with the new unknown ways of working.
3.Comfort with the status quo
Our brains are wired for comfort and certainty and we feel a sense of security when we understand how things are likely to go. We like routines, patterns and habits and change challenges us. It’s far easier to come into work each day and carry on doing the job you were doing, than to have to learn new skills and navigate a new process or company culture.
Any perceived threat to the established order can trigger a fear response from the amygdala which will lead to feelings of anxiety or discomfort for your employees. Resistance to change may be as simple as your co-workers liking things the way they are at the moment and any proposed changes bring the possibility that the new way of doing things might not be as enjoyable.
4. Lack of perceived benefit
When individuals don’t see the benefits of the proposed change or the advantages are not clearly communicated, they may question the need for transition and resist it. Without a clear reward, there’s no motivation for your team to get on board with your ideas for change.
People are generally more sensitive to potential losses than gains and if individuals perceive that the change might result in the loss of something valuable, such as job security, familiar routines, or established processes, they will need an even stronger conviction that the situation will lead to rewards or benefits for them personally in order to be motivated.
The reward doesn’t have to be monetary. If an employee believes that adopting a new way of doing things will make their role easier or more enjoyable, or will lead to a better company culture, that may be enough to overcome their resistance to change.
5. Lack of involvement
Lack of involvement in the changes that are happening, for example, insufficient communication or explanation about the reasons for the change, can lead to confusion, a sense of powerlessness and resistance. The more you can involve people and get them excited about what change means for them, the less likely they are to feel uncertain, insecure and anxious.
If there is a lack of trust in leadership, an organisation will struggle to deliver change effectively and by not involving individual employees – the frontline stakeholders who are going to be directly affected by any organisational change – the levels of mistrust are likely to increase.
46% of CIOs report that culture is the main barrier to successful change, and culture stems from employee involvement. Lack of involvement results in a detrimental company culture and resistance to change.
Overcoming resistance to change
Developing a deeper understanding of why people resist change will be invaluable in helping you understand how to deal with it in your business. Being aware of both the societal and psychological reasons for resistance can help you bring in elements that will help.
Having a clear plan to create a positive and inclusive environment can help mitigate the amygdala’s fear response and minimise resistance to change. This will lead to a more adaptive and open-minded approach to transition.
Purpose creates a sense of belonging, guides decisions and inspires action. When you’re planning your change initiative, you need to do more than set sales targets and make logical, reasoned arguments – you must work to create a sense of belonging and purpose to establish emotional goals.
Creating a shared story of the company’s future and being articulate about the benefits will go a long way to achieving buy-in from all levels. It’s also important to communicate why the changes are necessary and reassure staff that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing previously, but the industry is moving forward and you want the company to keep up.
Direction translates your purpose into a plan, clarifies where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. While there is undoubtedly a place for thinking about distinct projects, you also need to think in terms of an organisational shift and how each smaller piece fits into the overall puzzle.
Building connections with employees helps you build trust and create a productive company culture. Instead of dictating changes to your employees, think about holding workshops or meetings to allow people in your organisation to tell their own story and share their unique, individual perspective on the direction they think the company should take. Not only will this make your staff feel more involved, and therefore invested, in the changes, but the data they are able to give you will be invaluable in helping you create a vision for the company which involves everyone.
Keeping an open mind and remaining flexible helps you to stay ahead of the curve and deal with issues before they become problems. Make sure you allow enough time – and that you have the pathways in place – for employees to ask questions and receive answers at every stage of the change process. Be on the lookout for signs of change overload and be aware of any developing areas of resistance so you can bring in strategies like clearer communication and providing support and resources. The elements that may trigger a fear response in your co-workers are likely to change throughout a long process, so it’s important to continually evaluate where you can reassure and support.
Being aware of the reasons why people resist change is an important part of implementing a change initiative and can help your company be part of the minority (34%) who view their changes as a complete success.
Resistance to change is a normal and natural human response, especially in a business environment where change is happening with unparalleled rapidity. By understanding the root causes and having a strategy in place to tackle it, you’ll be best placed to handle the transitions.
Having the right technology in place to support and facilitate your changes can make a huge difference in overcoming employee reluctance. For example if you’re rolling out a new software, like Salesforce, using a digital adoption platform as part of your plan can help overcome employee resistance by offering targeted, user-focused support within the context of the digital tools being introduced.
Using a DAP addresses the key challenges associated with change through a smooth onboarding process, a reduced learning curve and contextual support. A more seamless and successful adoption of the new technologies will help employees overcome their resistance to new ways of working.