Sunday, December 6, 2009

Coping with the Resistance to Change

Conditions within and outside organizations are constantly changing.    It follows, therefore, that the way work is organized and accomplished must change periodically to cope with changing conditions. The only constant is "change" itself and successful organizations by definition do this better than anyone else.

Anyone who has worked in or led an organization's transformation understands change is not easy.  People tend to resist change naturally.  This is especially true with organizational and infrastructure type changes.  To cope with resistance one needs to understand why it occurs and how it can be overcome.


Here are the most common reasons why people resist change:

  1. Self- Interest – People fear that change will cause them to lose something they once had.  For example, when a corporate president decided to create a new vice presidency for product development, the existing vice presidents for manufacturing and marketing resisted because they feared losing their right to approve or veto new product decisions.

  2. Misunderstanding and Lack of Trust – A change starts as a vision in the mind of its sponsor.   If people don't trust that individual, they will suspect that she or he has hidden and harmful motives for proposing the change.  For example, a union opposed a company's proposal of flexible scheduling (flextime) because they didn't trust the personnel manager who suggested it.

  3. Different Assessments – When people view a problem from different perspectives, they will perceive different causes and cures for it.   Therefore, they may see a change as tackling the wrong cause and proposing a fruitless solution.  For example, sanitation department employees felt their pick-up delays were due to equipment breakdowns so they resented the city replacing their supervisor – they felt the planned change was inappropriate.

  4. Low Tolerance For Change – People sometimes resist change because they fear they will be unable to handle the new conditions competently. They also may resist breaking up comfortable social relations with co-workers.  For example, individuals have turned down transfers and promotions because they weren't sure they could handle being supervisors and they didn't want to give up the friendships with co-workers that had developed over the years.

There are five major ways this resistance to change can be dealt with.  Each is especially appropriate when certain conditions exist as shown in the table below: 


When this occurs:
Use This Method:
Employees poorly understand or have little or inaccurate information about the problem.
Provide, in advance, as much information as possible about the change and your reasons for it.
You don't have all the information needed to design the change and where others have considerable power to resist.
Allow the people who will be affected by the change to participate in deciding what needs to be done and how to implement the changes to be made.
People are resisting because they feel put out and inconvenienced by having to change from familiar to new circumstances.
Help people adjust to the new conditions by making the change as comfortable as possible.
Someone (or a group) clearly will lose out in a change and they have considerable power to resist.
Negotiate with them so they feel somewhat compensated for what is to be lost due to change.
Speed is essential and you have considerable power to enforce your will.
Announce and enforce the change with certainty and firmness.


These methods usually are used in combination and they are successful when employed with realistic awareness of the situation in which change is to occur. 

The infrastructure of an organization often changes in a lean transformation.  When trying to empower employees in a flow environment it is necessary to break down traditional organizational silos and hierarchical structures.  If you understand people's resistance to these changes you will be better equipped to prevent their resistance to change.

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