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  • Resistance to Change is Not Futile

Resistance that stems from employees uncovering a problem with the change initiative could be a source of information that can be used to improve the change or its implementation.

If acted upon, it has the potential to advance or enhance the initiative as discussed in a previous blog post, "Is Resistance to Change Necessarily Bad?"

On the other hand, if the message behind constructive resistance is ignored, it might indeed be futile to attempt raising issues that could make the difference between an initiative succeeding or failing.

If leaders had perfect access to all information, then they would have assurance that their way is the only right way. In which case, it would be safe to conclude that all resistance is bad and can be ignored, or even be a reason for action against resisters. However, no one has such perfect information. People resisting change may see something from their point of view that their managers simply have no access to. Misconstruing all resistance as obstruction or even sabotage automatically cuts leaders off from learning about, let alone integrating, improvements to the change or its implementation or even alternatives that were simply never thought of.

However, the flip-side is also true.

Not all resistance to an initiative is a font of valuable information. Without listening to employees concerns, it is impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. What’s worse, independent of the reason for their resistance, unless resisters are heard, they will probably take their concerns underground. Covert resistance (complaining at the water cooler, tardiness or inattention at change discussions, or withholding needed information) is dangerous and can undermine any new change initiative. Covert resistance also tends to magnify fears when rumors become a substitute for good information.

Even when the reason for resistance is fear of the unknown or simple misunderstandings about the change, it needs to be heard. Recognizing that employee’s have misgivings doesn’t just demonstrate an interest in their concerns. It can minimize covert resistance by addressing misunderstandings or honestly presenting a clear view of the future.

When the basis for resistance is constructive questions and ideas for improvement, unwillingness to listen leaves employees feeling undervalued and disempowered. It undermines their commitment to seeing the change through to completion. Understanding constructive feedback from resistant employees opens the door to learning about potential improvements to the change or its deployment. The earlier that these ideas are heard the greater the possibility of integrating them into the integration plan making it possible to leverage them to advantage.

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Creating a safe environment to raise issues is also, key. Employees are unlikely to bring their concerns forward if they think raising issues will result in a quick trip to the guillotine. Establish ground rules for how issues are raised. Make it clear that no topic is off limits, and there will be no repercussions for issues raised in a professional manner. Once a safe space is established, encourage employees to be open with their questions about the initiative. Otherwise, any potential value from ideas behind the resistance is lost, with the potential that not only the resistance, but the change itself becomes a futile exercise.

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through StrategyPerspective.com or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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