Overcoming the Resistance to Change

In my work with organizations seeking
to implement change initiatives, I continually underestimate the amount
of resistance that comes as a result. This shouldn’t come as a surprise
because we all cling to the status quo.

But why is this? What is it about change that makes us so reluctant to welcome it?

Change is a natural state for all things that grow, including
organizations. This is because markets change, needs change, people
change and, as a result, organizations need to change to continue
delivering the right products and services. To resist change is to
resist growth and this leads to stagnation and death.

And yet, we resist.

It turns out there is a fairly predictable path every person within
an organization must travel along when managing their own anxiety around
change. This path typically moves along the following timeline:

  1. Uniformed Optimism (blissful ignorance)
  2. Informed Pessimism (informed anguish)
       Checking Out
           Overt (public)
           Covert (private) 
  3. Hopeful Realism (coming to terms)
  4. Informed Optimism (realistic support)
  5. Completion

This timeline comes from the work of Daryl R. Conner, author of
“Managing at the Speed of Change,” and demonstrates how change
initiatives can be implemented if we manage each stage effectively.

Resistance reaches its peak with the checking out phase. This is most
responsible for derailing change initiatives and needs to be carefully
monitored.

Overt checking out occurs when people resist the change openly by
continually doing things the old way despite a new policy or procedure
being put in place. It is deliberate and publicly demonstrated. This is a
good thing too because the checking out can then be dealt with
directly.

Covert checking out can be far more dangerous because it is done
behind the scenes and in ways that are more difficult to detect. If a
manager says all the right things in a meeting, but then goes back to
his office and says something different to coworkers, it undermines the
change and can be difficult to confront.

“Resistance is inevitable,” says Conner. “Many managers naïvely
assume that if people like a change or think it is a good idea, they
will not resist it. Significant change is a disruption in our
expectations about the future. This disruption causes a loss of control,
and we will resist this loss of control—even if we think the change is a
sound one.”

According to Conner, resistance to change is governed by our
perceived loss of control. And this loss of control (real or perceived)
is sometimes not communicated because it is a feeling and we rarely
speak about our feelings in the workplace.

The key is to manage resistance by recognizing the inevitability of
it. Address it openly, honestly and consistently. Understand that
resistance will be experienced differently based on positive or negative
reactions to change. Overt resistance should be encouraged as it can
get problems out in the open that can then be dealt with as they arise.

Realize that people may not be comfortable expressing the real
reasons for resistance because it touches on their feelings and this
requires an atmosphere for open and honest communication. Enabling an
environment for an open conversation without fear of retribution may
help uncover these feelings and thereby remove resistance. 

Change is good. Change is necessary. And resistance to change is
inevitable. Therefore, it is important to recognize this resistance and
deal with it as it arises.

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