Resistance is the bane of any organizational change effort—or is it?
“This place isn’t what it used to be.” “They’re just spinning in circles with no idea of what they’re doing.” “Oh great, another reorganization. We’ll see how long this one lasts.”
These are common refrains heard around the water cooler during a change process at most organizations. They usually convey various forms of skepticism, cynicism, and even nihilism. It’s not uncommon for organizational leaders to throw their hands up when hearing these responses and wonder what to do next. It’s also not uncommon for these messages to culturally undermine all the buy in and agreement necessary to execute a change.
Consultants sometimes come in and take the lead in planning and carrying out these changes. They’re often then heroes when the effort works or scapegoats when it doesn’t. The whole thing can have a bizarre theatrical quality to it.
But one thing is clear: it’s employee resistance that gets in the way.
… Or is it?
The answer is: probably not. Resistance is a big, junk-drawer category for lots of different motivations. Experiencing resistance is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s usually a good thing because it means that you’re addressing something important. If an employee reacts with intensity or concerns, it means that they are engaged and worried about something. Good sign.
If, however, an employee reacts to a change effort with apathy, then you’re in trouble. Apathy is the terrifying killer of change. When people go limp at the prospect of change, you’re just counting your days until failure.
There are three main forms of resistance employees typically present, each worth understanding. Identifying and responding appropriately to resistance can make all the difference in negotiating a change process:
Ideological resistance. This type of resistance looks like a set of responses that reflect honest differences ideologically, values-wise, or philosophically with the change process. People may simply not understand or disagree with what the organization is attempting to do. This is not a bad sign. People rarely commit to something that they don’t get or agree with. The knee-jerk reaction of leadership’s part to this is often to label these folks as “bad seeds” or “agitators.” This doesn’t help and typically only increases the resistance and ensuing power struggle.
Rather, try countering this resistance with persuasive arguments based on facts, data, and substance. Show them the logical reasons that you are undertaking these changes. Opinions won’t work.
Political resistance. This type of resistance reflects a deep-seated fear of losing something valuable in the change process, such as power, status, income, or even their job. People think that they will be on the losing end of things during the shift. It’s quite understandable. Leaders’ reactions to this type of resistance is to call people “selfish” or “narrow-minded.” And while these labels may be true to some degree, name calling rarely helps. Most people, even the most enlightened folks, react defensively when they think what they’ve earned is threatened.
A couple of responses to political resistance can be helpful. One is to negotiate. Let people hang on to some things that are important to them (if that’s appropriate). Work to find a win-win. The second is to remind them that a short-term loss can result in a long-term gain. What they’re giving up now may reward them handsomely in the future after a change occurs.
Blind resistance. This type of resistance represents a total intolerance of change. These people simply won’t entertain any thought or conversation about something new or different. It’s a dead end.
This may be the one form of resistance that is “unovercomable,” so to speak. If someone digs in their heels and refuses to talk through something, leadership may have to make a hard but necessary choice to move forward without this individual. However, prior to that move, two approaches may help. The first is reassurance. Some folks freeze up when they’re deeply frightened by an event or the prospect of an event. They merely need someone to say, “It’ll be fine.” The second is patience. Many people require a few days or weeks to come to terms with a significant shift before they can engage and move forward constructively.
Before you pull your hair out of your head or go on some sort of organizational purge due to resistance, attempt to understand it. Look at your people and try understanding what form of resistance they are exhibiting. Test a few responses that you think may help. Give people the dignity of their struggle without telling them what to think or how to act. Try coaching them rather than ordering them around.
All people are capable of change, though they may not change the way that you want them to or at the exact speed you’re hoping. It’s always a tradeoff. Your people need work and you need them to do the work. A change effort disrupts things, but there are ways of mitigating disruption and making the experience people friendly.
Just remember, if someone says, “I don’t agree with where you are taking this company,” you should celebrate. They care. They are engaged. They want to understand what’s happening. Conversely, if someone say, “OK, whatever—fine with me,” you might want to reevaluate things. Apathy and indifference are a lethal cocktail that poison change.
Resistance means interest. Understand. Follow it. Address it. It’ll take you places.
Photo credit: Flickr/atalou