Overcoming Resistance to Organizational Change

To understand why we resist change, it is useful to acknowledge that humans are creatures of habit, and that habits are learned behaviors with predictable outcomes. By creating change, we force those involved – including ourselves – to confront the unknown and “unlearn” things that we previously accepted as producing desirable results. Even if the current results are sub par, they are predictable and at some level comfortable for us – so we resist changing.

There are 3 types of resistance that most frequently rear their unproductive heads in an organizational setting: emotional, political, and rational (EPR). Although each has the potential to derail organizational change and all 3 operate simultaneously within us, they are unique in how and when they are most likely to impact your business.

When people first learn about impending change, most – at an emotional level – actually become intrigued and even excited about it. We are naturally curious and relatively optimistic beings, so our emotional reaction to upcoming change is initially positive as you can see on the Emotional graph line in Chart A. It isn’t until the going gets tough that emotions swing to the negative and have the potential to create a crisis point. If you had the power to listen to what other people think, at the crisis point you might hear things like “I’m not so sure this is really going to work” and “This is much harder than I thought it would be.” As a leader, it is critical for you to anticipate this moment for yourself and for your people so that you can provide the boost necessary to help your team power through to firmer emotional ground.

Click Here to View Chart A

Political resistance to change is all about self-image and the perception of power. Unlike emotional resistance, political resistance kicks in at the exact moment people learn about change. The Political graph line in Chart A begins with a swing to the negative and then slowly trends back up into positive territory, tracing initial questions about the personal impact of change. People think things like “This could cost me my job” and “Why wasn’t I asked about this before the decision was made?” Over time, and as the change process unfolds, even the most seasoned political players learn to adapt, compensate, and otherwise protect their sense of importance, moving them back to positive ground. Warning: there is risk that political resistance will derail your project if it is left unchecked at the crisis point on the graph. To minimize the impact of political resistance, be sure to involve the right people up-front as you plan change and anticipate individual reactions – both of which will help you accelerate the path to acceptance.

Rational resistance to change is the easiest to both understand and overcome. As people try to understand change, they look for facts, relevant comparisons, and logic to help justify why it is necessary and what they should expect both during and after the process. Along the way, they look for measurable evidence of success and progress to correlate how their organization is doing compared to what they expected. The result of this is a straight-line Rational graph line on Chart A that begins at neutral and slowly trends toward positive acceptance. Thorough planning and open communications before and during change initiatives minimize the impact of rational resistance. As many of my clients learned the hard way, it is much better to deliver “bad” news or information about the imperative for change in an open and up-front manner than to shield it from employees to “protect” them for as long as possible. The same rings true for communicating successes, failures, and progress during the change process. Any news – even bad news – helps to minimize rational resistance to change.

How does EPR resistance to change impact your company? What did this cost you last year, and what would the benefits be if you could reduce their effects in the future?

Plans, People, Process

When I ask business owners to tell me where they want to drive their business, in most cases I get either a blank stare or a highly tactical response like the one I recently heard – “We are going to hire 3 new salespeople in 2009 and really push our [newest and most profitable service] business.” A statement like this is usually more of a reaction to events from the prior year than a forward-looking statement of what they really want to accomplish. It also oversimplifies the tasks at hand.

Running a business in this manner is akin to trying to drive a car to an unknown destination while looking in the rearview mirror; you don’t know where you are going and you could very well get yourself and others killed along the way!

The most significant root cause of EPR resistance to change – by far – is an underinvestment in strategic planning. To be clear, strategic planning is a thought process that helps business leaders clarify and then merge their concept of what they want their business to become with the external realities of the marketplace and the internal realities of their organization. The result is vastly improved precision regarding direction and focus, and a realistic assessment of the organization’s strengths, limitations, opportunities, and risks. Tactical planning and planning for change becomes much easier when a big picture has been defined – not just in terms of what must be accomplished, but also why it matters.

If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “but my company is too small to need a strategic plan,” you might want to reconsider if indeed you are, or if you might be thinking too small not to have one!

Business planning – the combination of strategic planning (first) and tactical planning (second) – helps set the stage for change and will provide you with multiple opportunities to anticipate and overcome EPR resistance to change, in yourself and in your staff. It also facilitates the integration of your plan, your people issues (how to further develop yourself and your people), and your processes (which ones require examination for potential improvement) into a single set of tasks specifically designed to get you where you want it to go.

Change in your company starts with you, and it is never too late to plan for your future.

Ray Noorda, technology pioneer and former president and CEO of Novell Corporation, said: “Cause change and lead; accept change and survive; resist change and die.”

As a leader, it is important to acknowledge that you are also resistant to change. How do your own emotions, ego, and sense of strategic clarity impact your ability to drive change? Are you surrounding yourself with the right people to facilitate change or do those around you take too much comfort in the status quo?

Although there may never be a truly “good” time for change, it is always far better to plan for it proactively than to find yourself reacting to events that may not be fully in your control.

This entry was posted in Leadership, Obstacles to Change, Performance Improvement and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Trackback

  • By strategic change management on October 28, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    strategic change management…

    Great post. My approach to strategic change management says the quality of the first five percent determines what happens in the rest of the process. This same principle applies to many situations….

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