Traditionally, resistance has been perceived as an unfavorable and destabilizing problem that must be resolved in any way possible so as to achieve successful organizational change. Burke (2017) points out that managers often consider resistance negatively, and employees who resist change are usually viewed as disobedient and obstacles the organization must overcome. Several scholars and theorists have forwarded alternative views regarding resistance. The gist of this school of thought is that resistance should be handled more objectively and represented as being a useful feedback tool that plays an important and constructive role in the whole change process.
It is important to note that there are no clear-cut solutions which managers can employ to manage employee resistance to change. This is basically due to the fact that the context of each change process and causes of resistance are unique to each organization. There are certain common mistakes made by change agents and managers when attempting to lessen or remove resistance to change in their organizations (Dent and Goldberg, 1999) as cited by Choi (2011).
In organizations you find change resistance especially when you touch personal and important things:
- The power structures are threatened
- People’s personal needs are threatened. Good guesses for the specific needs are autonomy, recognition, safety, rest, or connection.
- There is more work coming. Learning, by the way, is really hard work, which is too often forgotten.
Misconceptions on Organizational Change
There numerous mistakes pertaining change that managers often make. First, managers often make the mistake of assuming that it is their role to foster change and that of employees to always resist it. Therefore more often than not the strategies adopted to manage resistance are for managers to implement change and not for the supposed resistor (“employee”) to change This assumption is flawed moreover may trigger additional resistance. According to Clement (2014), employees in the lower levels in organizations are often eager to make changes but encounter resistance from senior managers due to the skewed assumption above. Second is the tendency of managers to react to the symptoms of resistance rather than the underlying causes. This usually results in the change agent prescribing the wrong preventive actions to manage the assumed resistance. Normally when the planned change in an organization is not going on as planned due to employee resistance, managers often look to make changes in employees while the real need may be to change the system. At times the resistance may actually be as a result of the way the change effort is being implemented. It is not surprising therefore to find some managers implementing strategies that deal with employee resistance while the underlying causes of resistance may be that the internal structure, processes, and resources of the organization are not in tandem with the change effort being undertaken.
The third is the practice of managers attempting to replicate strategies that were successfully used to manage resistance elsewhere while not taking cognizance of the context of change. As it was mentioned earlier, the circumstances of each change process and causes of employee resistance are unique to each organization. Sometimes a strategy for managing resistance that was successful in one organization fails in another due to the different holding variables. For example, organizations have unique organizational cultures which consist of different employee’s values, beliefs, rituals, routines, and power systems (Pearce & Robinson, 1997). Finally, most change agents and managers usually consider resistance as something negative and inappropriate which should be overcome at all costs (Choi, 2011). Due to this, many managers do not take time to understand and appreciate the nature of resistance and as a result, fail to benefit from its positive aspects like the feedback loop it offers which is vital in monitoring the change. As it wa$ mentioned earlier, genuine employee resistance can at times prevent management from undertaking change efforts which may end up unsuccessful.
No matter how successfully or administratively perfect a proposed change may be, individuals in an organization implement or break the change due to representing a form of influence. Even though organizational change generally can be initiated by managers or imposed by specific changes in policy and procedures or arose through external pressures; organizational change is management’s attempt to have organization members to think, behave and perform differently (Carter et al., 2013). However, people differ with regard to their perception towards change; some of them may consider a change with a lower tolerance (Clement, 2014). That is, some organizational members embrace change initiatives readily and move it while others fight the change to the death with denying its necessity (Burke, 2017).
In organizations, resistance to change which concerns thought of the implications about change appears to be an attitude or behavior indicating a willingness to support or make the desired change (Mullins, 2005; Schermerhorn, Hunt & Osborn, 2005). In fact, resistance to change is a resistance to the loss of something that is valuable or loss of the known by moving to the unknown. Sometimes, people resist the imposition of change that is accepted as a universal truth (Burke, 2008). Nonetheless, resistance can be passive resignation or deliberate sabotage (Choi, 2011).
Benefits of Change Resistance
Various authors including Choi (2011) have opined that resistance is not always negative or an obstruction to change. They point out that in certain instances, resistance may play a positive and useful role in organizational change. They further argue that resistance may force management to rethink and re-evaluate a proposed change initiative. Weisbord (2011) identifies employee resistance as valuable passion, which can be channeled more constructively. Fugate et al (2012), contend that at times the organization may be changing the wrong thing or doing it wrong. Employee resistance can, therefore, act as a gateway or filter which can help organizations select from all possible changes the one that is most appropriate to the current situation. According to Thomas and Hardy (2012), resistance to change acts as a useful source of information which can assist change managers in developing successful change processes. Resistance often serves as a constructive purpose and is frequently an appropriate response to a situation especially when it is a symptom to deeper problems (Clement, 2012).
Ijas and Vitalis (2011) assert that resistance is a very effective, very powerful and very useful survival mechanism. He argues that the idea that anyone who questions the need for change has an attitude problem, is simply wrong and not only because it discounts past achievements, but also because it makes us vulnerable to indiscriminate and ill-advised change. Ijas and Vitalis (2011) postulate that there are many managers who believe that change processes that occur with only minimal resistance must have been a good change idea that was well managed by the organization. She points out that this understanding is an immature perspective which leaves employee resistance in the negative side of the change process.
Berube (2012) states that employee resistance to change can actually help prevent bad ideas from being implemented. This expected resistance causes us to deploy a strategy for obtaining the type of buy-in that will get our good ideas implemented. Thus, we should appreciate when employees push back against our initiatives, as this forces us to:
- Justify why change is necessary
- Slow down, prioritize, strategize and create supporting plans
- Involve employees, listen and gather feedback
Justification and Re-evaluation
Many employees resist change because they don’t know why they are being asked to change (Burnes and Jackson, 2011). Resistance to change forces management to justify to the workforce why change is required. Leaders must ensure that their ideas creating the change will actually enhance the organization. Assuming the organization has a vision of where they are going, does this change align with and help achieve the vision of the organization? When changes occur, there is fear of the unknown. Employees will immediately wonder if their needs will still be met (Choi, 2011). Some of the typical fears include job loss, loss of power or influence, loss of prestige, reduced overtime, increased hours or more productivity (Brown and Osbourne, 2012). When we implement major change the justification must be translated to employees in the context of “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) (Cawsey et al., 2011). We must make this translation because this is what they will be listening for. But, while leaders think that they can define the pros and cons at a personal level, they cannot. Only the individual employee can tell you the pros and cons of how a change will affect them. Resistance forces leaders to find out how the change will impact people. This can only be accomplished by communicating directly with employees early and often.
Management have time to prioritize, strategize and create supporting plans
Resistance to change forces management to slow down and take the time needed to create comprehensive plans. Project managers know that their project’s success and failure are separated by risk. A detailed risk plan must be created to mitigate project risks (Burke, 2017). This plan includes items like resources, funding, timelines, and coordination. Project risks associated with the people side of change must also be considered. Risks must be analyzed and change-management plans created (Cawsey, 2011).
- Risk analysis
The people side of change can be seen as a risk to our project objectives. When evaluating the risk to a project a manager must look at the size and scope of the change as well as the specific characteristics of the organization related to change (Brown and Osbourne, 2012). How big is the change? Does it change one group or everyone? Is everyone affected the same way or is the change different for each individual group? Is the organization saturated with many changes all happening at the same time? Are resources even available to make this change happen? Does the organization have a history of failed changes often referred to as “flavor of the month” syndrome? These are imperative questions to address resistance to change.
- Communication plans
Justifying the what, why, and WIIFM is usually accomplished through the communications plan. Burke (2017) states that the plan should be crafted to address the needs of all affected groups throughout all aspects of the project. Bad communication and its associated negative effect are magnified during events causing major change. When resistance to change forces an organization to create plans and communicate with our employees, it reinforces the benefits of good communication. These lessons learned can be carried over and applied to how managers communicate daily with staff (Choi, 2011).
- Coaching plans for sponsors and managers
One of the worst assumptions that change managers can make is to assume that sponsors and managers know exactly what is expected of them during a transformation. Choi (2011) states that coaching plans should be developed to assist these key roles in executing the activities necessary to be successful. We ask sponsors to lead from the front, build coalitions of people to guide the initiative and communicate key messages. Managers should work directly with the people who are changing and provide two-way communication, manage resistance, lead by example, connect the project to the people, and coach people through change, as well as make the change themselves (Brown and Osbourne, 2012).
- Reinforcement plans
As an organization encounters resistance and employees are taken out of their comfort zone. Management must have a plan in place to reinforce those new behaviors or they will revert to the old behaviors. From the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” model, this is a “check.” Management must check that the new behaviors are in plans and coordinate this “check” function with incentives and rewards (Burke, 2017). These can range from a simple pat on the back to celebratory dinners, to bonuses, to promotions (Burke, 2017). Creating reinforcement plans for major change often forces organizations to evaluate the effectiveness of their current reward and recognition programs to ensure that the correct behaviors are being reinforced (Choi, 2011).
Employee Feedback is valuable
While many leaders may have some great ideas, they may not always be the best solution. When we get different points of view we come up with a better solution. Getting employees involved early in the process fosters better solutions. The ideas become “ours” or “the team’s”not “management’s” (Fugate et al., 2012). This generates ownership and ownership minimizes resistance. One of the greatest benefits of involving our employees in designing solutions is that it further enhances their skills and abilities in continuous improvement. This makes them more valuable employees.
We all need to listen more. When we attempt to jointly develop solutions, our employees will tell us what is working and what isn’t. Listening provides us with feedback on whether the implemented changes are generating the results and associated return we expected. Resistance generates communication content. Listening for symptoms of resistance will allow us to check if we are trying to implement a good idea or a bad idea.
Resistance to change is a normal human response. Employees immediately seek to translate the change into a personal context—which can be magnified by fear of the unknown. When organizations have to address the WIIFM question with the workforce, it forces leaders to justify the reason for the change. Addressing the reasons for change and involving the workforce in crafting solutions creates the best ideas and helps prevent bad ideas from being implemented.
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