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Managing resistance to change: how to help people embrace change at work

By 23rd January 2024March 15th, 2024No Comments

Change is an inevitable constant. Yet, we often overlook how profoundly it impacts our thoughts, emotions, and ultimately, our success.

For some, change may evoke apprehension, while others greet it with enthusiasm. Regardless of our initial stance, our perceptions and reactions shape our response and determine whether change becomes an obstacle or an opportunity.

Here at Inform, change is our forte. So, we have invited Suzanne Nash, one of our Change Management Consultants, to talk about why some people may appear to resist change and how to tackle this critical issue.

Q: What is resistance in change management?

In change management, we talk about adoption – getting people to participate and helping them get the most out of new ways of working. New technologies, new processes, new behaviours – those kind of things. Resistance to change essentially hinders full adoption and undermines the return on investment that organisations hope to make through the change.

Think of ‘resistance’ as a loose term that can be manifested in different ways, such as avoidance, anger, or generally struggling with change.

It can be caused by a number of factors, such as uncertainty, fear,  past experiences, or even circumstances outside of work. It’s important not to label people here, and appreciate that some of us may have a lower tolerance for change if lots of transformation is happening at once.

Inform change manager Suzanne Nash

Q: When it comes to new ways of working, why do some people resist change? What’s the psychology at work?

Imagine change as an unwanted guest crashing your well-ordered dinner party. It disrupts your routine, challenges your comfort zone, and forces you to adapt.

A man in a party hat sits at a dinner table, laughing obnoxiously and drinking champagne too fast. Next to him, the host awkwardly laughs. Her thought bubble reads "seriously, who invited this guy?"

People resist change because it’s human nature to seek stability and predictability. Research shows our brains are wired to conserve energy, and new behaviours require more mental effort.

When presented with a new way of doing something, the physiological reaction is to revert to what the brain already knows – our habits – or the path of least resistance.

Although we can’t always make people feel comfortable with change, we can minimise their discomfort.

Q: What can leaders do to help people adapt to change?

When leadership seems aloof or disconnected from change, it breeds uncertainty and erodes trust. When leaders are not visibly engaged, employees may feel like the change is happening without proper guidance or understanding of the overarching objectives.

To tackle this, executives must take the wheel, offering clear milestones and transparent communication.

Strategies to avoid resistance to change:

As an executive or sponsor accountable for a change programme, these actions can help set your people up for success:

  • Be active and visible. Explain the reason for the change, provide clear direction, and spend time listening to people at the chalkface to understand what their working lives entail.
  • Influence other leaders. Actively demonstrate the behaviours the change programme encourages and lead by example.
  • Always be clear and transparent in communications, even when the full answer remains unclear
  • Don’t be afraid to make tough decisions in extreme cases, for instance, where people have received demonstrable change support, but still resist the new way of working.

If you’re a people leader, rather than an executive change sponsor, you need to explain the “What’s in it for me” aspect of the change within your team, and work with professional change managers to handle queries and support the programme.

Q: Is change more successful when people know what’s in it for them?

People will be more motivated to adopt a change if it benefits them. Sometimes, people feel like change is happening to them, not something they actively chose.

To help get people on side, you need to actively engage with people. Present the benefits, address their concerns, and be clear on what they’ll be expected to do differently to facilitate the change.

How to mitigate resistance to change:

Here’s how you can work alongside your change team to deliver clear “what’s in it for me’ messaging in your organisation:

  • Engage with individuals, incorporate feedback and keep things simple
  • Highlight the relative advantage of the change and address concerns transparently
  • If the change is challenging, provide a clear rationale for its necessity
Post-it note on a cork board, it says "communicate consistently"

How important is setting clear expectations in change management?

Teams thrive on clear expectations, and when these are lacking, fear and uncertainty take root.

Without a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, team members may feel confused, overwhelmed, and unsure of how to contribute effectively. Collaboration between change management and the wider programme is essential to develop a structured approach amidst potential chaos.

Some key tips here include maintaining reliable communication and sharing key messages consistently.

Q: How can personal fears impact the success of change?

Fears, whether openly expressed or lingering beneath the surface, have a significant impact on hindering change. People begin to ask questions like, “can I use the technology?” or “does this mean the organisation will monitor my work more?”

Change coaching, empathy and presenting choices are essential in managing personal fears.

Strategies to overcome resistance to change:

  • Provide enough time and support for individuals to adapt – rather than simply train people and expect them to be proficient from day 1
  • Engage employees in meaningful demos and familiarisation
  • Establish peer networks and offer dedicated IT support

Q: What about change fatigue? Is this something that affects people’s resistance to change?

Oh yes. Excessive change breeds fatigue and change resistance within a culture. It can lead to a feeling of instability and unpredictability, which can negatively affect employees.

A jack russell terrier with a blanket over him looking tired. A thought bubble reads "But I just got used to the old new way of working."

The human brain is naturally inclined towards patterns and routines, and when these are disrupted consistently, it can induce stress and anxiety.

Executives must reassess change timelines and emphasise small wins and successes. The aim is to cultivate a culture that not only acknowledges past failures, but also embraces them as opportunities for learning.

Top tips for managing change:

  • Address working conditions critical to success
  • Build a big picture of all the change timelines in your organisation, then critically evaluate the total change burden – do people need more space to adapt than you are giving them?
  • Focus on small wins, successes and learning opportunities

Q: In conclusion, if organisations address these key areas of change, will there be a positive outcome?

Well, tackling these challenges won’t magically deal with all change resistance, because change is tricky – and a little resistance is human nature after all! But putting effort into handling these aspects boost your people’s ability to adapt and respond more positively to change.

The steps we’ve talked about all help set people up for success as they transition from old to new ways of working. We can’t control how people respond entirely, but we can offer lots of opportunities to influence them positively.

Want to hear more from our change experts? Tune into our podcast!

The first series of Diary of a Change Manager is now live on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, or wherever you get your podcasts. In each episode, Samantha Kinstrey, Co-founder and Director at The Inform Team, is joined by special guests to bring you exclusive insights, ideas and practical strategies that drive successful programmes, engage your people, and help change stick.

Listen to the podcast
Diary of a change manager

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