Unearthing Resistance to Change: Why It Matters

May 9, 2019
Resistance left buried produces frustrated and disenchanted employees, turnover, and increased cost and delays. At worst, change never happens at all.

"We tried it before, it didn’t work.” “I don’t have time, I have too many other responsibilities.” “They won’t use it.” “They don’t need it.” “They already know how.” “The system can’t handle it, it’s already too slow.”

On and on rolled the excuses until I heard these words: “Management only wants this change so they can get rid of us.”

There it was, the underlying reason why this group of employees was resisting change. Yes, those other pretexts had some merit but as soon as one was addressed, another surfaced, then another and another. This one was different. While the other excuses aimed at blaming or deflecting, this one indicated there was something more, something real. It indicated fear, it expressed anger, and most notably, it expressed that these employees cared.

I have to admit that as I listened to those words an undetectable smile formed on my face. This may sound surprising, but I find remarkable value in unearthing resistance and its source. Although mitigating resistance may be a time-consuming and unpleasant task, the act of unearthing resistance allows energy and resources to be effectively focused on it. The outcome: desired results and return on investment. On the other hand, resistance left buried produces the opposite outcomes: frustrated and disenchanted employees, turnover, and increased cost and delays. In the worst-case scenario, there is no change at all while leaving the next change initiative at a disadvantage.

During times of change, managers and supervisors can approach resistance in four ways:

  1. Feed it. The very roles needed to defuse resistance can increase it. A leader who is not on board with a change can actually foster resistance through their words and actions, or lack thereof. Employees quite often follow their direct supervisor’s lead. When they hear statements like “they want you to” or “I don’t necessarily agree with this but we have to,” or observe managers contradicting the change through their decisions and actions, employees will believe the change is optional. This direct and or indirect leadership behavior feeds resistance.
  2. Ignore it. Too often managers assume that the change being implemented is no big deal, employees will like it because they do, someone else will take care of it, or employees will get on board soon or later. Quite the opposite is true. Resistance to change should be expected and planned for. Since the most critical role to address resistance is an employee’s direct supervisor, turning a blind eye toward resistance simply prolongs the inevitable and increases the amount of effort to overcome it.
  3. Avoid it. These managers typically don’t like conflict, don’t want to be viewed as the bad guy, or don’t feel they are equipped or empowered to handle resistance. They tend to keep conversations brief and at the surface level. There is no desire to get into details with employees. They shy away from seeking feedback and input from their employees, and keep themselves consumed with other duties so they don’t have to address it. Resistance can only be avoided for so long before it becomes an arduous obstacle.  Sooner or later it will need to be addressed and just like ignoring it, it consumes more time and effort to overcome it the longer it is left unaddressed.
  4. Unearth it. Managers who acknowledge resistance, identify it early, understand the reason behind it, and actively work to help employees through it, know their organizations will achieve the accompanying benefits on time and on budget. Engaging employees, seeking feedback, owning the change, investing time, building trust, actively listening, seeking to understand, and being authentic are the tools successful resistance managers employ.

Most change initiatives inevitably generate some form of resistance. It is a natural human response when leaving what’s familiar and moving to the unfamiliar. As managers and supervisors we can rebuff it or we can pursue resistance, knowing that being successful in our role as a change leader means we need to proactively and intentionally help others through theirs.

As principal consultant for Life Cycle Engineering, Jeff Nevenhoven develops solutions that align organizational systems, structures, controls and leadership styles with a company’s business vision and performance objectives. Jeff’s experience enables him to work effectively with employees throughout an organization to implement solutions that remove functional barriers and prepare and lead people through sustaining change.You can reach Jeff at [email protected].

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