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Academic Insight: Overcoming Resistance To Change

Welcome to 2022! It’s a new year with new possibilities. New goals and new strategies. And with all that newness may come required changes. I think all of us know, especially when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, the idea of change is exciting and promising. However, the reality of implementing changes proves to be more difficult and challenging.

Consider this scenario. Your organization has decided to adopt a new method, procedure, or software system to complete organizational tasks. It will be a much needed upgrade and improvement to your old ways of doing things. The end-result will be a tremendous benefit to the organization in terms of organizational effectiveness and efficiency. However, your organization can’t realize those benefits, because employees may not be fully behind the transition. Some are more vocal in their opposition while others are quietly holding on to traditional procedures and norms.

In preparation for this month’s article, I noticed that when authors attempt to illustrate and simplify the complexities of organizational change, they often refer to the English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton. Some individuals have successfully applied Newton’s Laws of Motion to organizations to help managers understand what is happening during organizational change processes. For this month’s article, I want to focus specifically on Newton’s Third Law of Motion which is described below:

“For every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. If object A exerts a force on object B, object B also exerts an equal and opposite force on object A.” (Glenn Research Center).

This has been demonstrated to occur in organizations. When there is a force for change, there will be an equal and opposite force opposed to change. Several of the common reasons why people resist change in organizations are listed below:

  • Economic factors
  • A conflict with self-interests
  • Different goals and assessments
  • Fear of loss
  • Lack of trust
  • Fear of the unknown/uncertainty
  • Lack of understanding

My guess is that if you have any experience with implementing change within an organization, you have encountered one or more of these obstacles. So, how do we as managers respond to and overcome forces opposed to change? According to the literature, there are several approaches that managers can use. For this article, I want to focus on two general approaches— Education/Communication and Participation.

Education/Communication

The education/communication approach for implementing change is used under the following conditions:

  • When change is technical
  • When users need accurate information and analysis to understand change

From my perspective, I think the education/communication approach applies to both those who will be on the receiving end of change (users) and those who want to implement change (decision-makers). When it comes to users, the common approach is for leaders to present facts, figures, and technical information. What is oftentimes missing is focusing on the why behind needed changes. There is a common saying that the hardest thing to open is a closed mind. In some cases, individuals who have been performing a task a certain way are reluctant to buy into or even try a different method. It is suggested that when educating/ communicating with users, managers should create a sense of urgency and help users understand why changing will benefit them personally.

For decision-makers, I think it is extremely important to fully understand factors opposed to change before making transitions. A tool that can be used by managers is a force-field analysis, which is simply listing on one side all the driving forces for change (problems and opportunities) and on the other side listing all the potential forces that would be resistant to change (barriers).

Participation

The participation approach for implementing change is used under the following conditions:

  • When users need to feel involved
  • When design requires information fromothers
  • When users have the power to resist

The expectation is that when decision-makers involve employees at the beginning and during change processes, those employees will be more supportive rather than resistant. In my opinion, managers should also take into consideration both legitimate power and expert power that exists in the organization. Legitimate power is defined as “the degree to which a person has the right to ask others to do things that are considered within the scope of their authority.” Expert power is defined as “the ability to influence the behavior of others through the amount of knowledge or expertise possessed by an individual on which others depend.” While managers have legitimate power, some employees could have a tremendous amount of expert power. Employees know the specific details and steps of procedures, what works, and what doesn’t work. And since they are often the first point of contact with customers or external stakeholders, it would make sense to seek their input when implementing change in organizations. I know from personal experience that whenever I involved individuals who reported to me to play a role in making decisions, the result was often much better than what I could have imagined on my own.

This brings me to my next point which is the importance of listening to and gathering feedback. If you get employees involved, and they provide feedback, it is important to do something with the feedback if feasible. Otherwise, employees could be demotivated from actively participating in the future.

Resources

For more information and additional resources on this topic, I’ve included a list of articles that might be of interest:

  • Newton’s Law Applied to Organizational Change by Sergio Luis Conte
  • Involving Employees in Change: 5 Quick Tips by Andrew Horlick
  • How to Get Employees Involved in Making Changes by Stan Mack
  • Five Ways to Engage Employees in Change by Rachel Bangasser
  • Change Management Lessons About Employee Involvement by Susan M. Heathfield
  • Don’t Just Tell Employees Organizational Changes Are Coming—Explain Why by Morgan Galbraith

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