Change Management

12 Reasons Why Employees Resist Organizational Change

Let’s face it; most people prefer predictability and stability in both their personal and professional lives. So, people typically avoid situations that upset the order of things, threaten their self-interests, increase stress, or involve risks. When faced with a change to the status quo, people usually resist initially.

./The resistance continues and, in some cases increases, until they are able to recognize the benefits of change and perceive the gains to be worth more than the risk or threats to their self-interests. I know that people resist change because of lack of communication – on the what, why, when, how, who and the support needed for those affected.

James O’Toole points out in his book, Leading Change, that people resist change due to the fundamental human objection to having the will of others imposed upon them – this to me is true. At the end of the day, all sources of resistance to change need to be acknowledged and people’s emotions validated. It’s far better to anticipate objections than to spend your time putting out fires, and knowing how to overcome resistance to change is a vital part of any change management plan.

The resistance to organizational change is rarely irrational. Employees resist change efforts from a perspective that makes perfect sense to them.

In practice, there are 12 common reasons why people resist change in the workplace:

1. Loss of Job: This is a major reason why employees resist change. In an organizational setting, any process, technological advancement, systems, or product change will include streamlining, working smarter, cost reduction, efficiency, faster turn around times. All these means staff and managers will resist the changes that result in their roles being eliminated or reduced. From their perspective, your change is harmful to their position in the organization! The satisfaction that employees have with their job determines a portion of their reactions during times of change.

Employees who experience a high degree of job satisfaction are better able to weather periods of change. They are more positive in their approach to their work and can see change as an organizational necessity. Unhappy employees, on the other hand, view change as just another annoyance in a long list of complaints. Chances are, whatever the change, any disgruntled employees will view it as having a negative impact on both the organization and them personally.

2. Bad Communication Strategy: This is another crucial reason why employees resist change. The way in which any change process is communicated to employees within the organization is a critical factor in determining their reactions. If you can’t communicate what, why, how, when, who and what success will look like or how success is going to be measured, then, expect resistance!

If employees do not understand the need for change, why ask for a buy in the first place? Especially among those who strongly believe the current way of doing things works well…and has done for the past twenty-five years! When upper management plans and communicates early and effectively with all employees and explains the reasoning behind the change, employees are much more likely to buy into it.

Changes that are mandated with little or no communication, on the other hand, are often poorly received, since employees may feel that the change is being shoved down their throats. When it comes to change management there’s no such thing as too much communication. If there is no immediate information to communicate during a change, telling employees that there is no update regarding the ongoing change is communication! Don’t just keep quiet; this is also the time to maintain an open door policy regardless of where you are placed in the organization.

Be present and available for questioning. Miscommunication is if you communicate insignificant or insensitive information. You can’t communicate too much significant, substantial information.

3. Shock and Fear of the Unknown: This is yet another crucial reason why employees resist change. Employees’ responses to organizational change can range from fear and panic to enthusiastic support. During periods of change, some employees may feel the need to cling to the past because it was a more secure, predictable time. If what they did in the past worked well for them, they may resist changing their behavior out of fear that they will not achieve as much in the future. The less the organization knows about the change and its impact on them, the more fearful they become.

The leading change also requires not springing surprises on people! The organization needs to be prepared for the change. In the absence of continuing a two-way communication with leadership, grapevine rumors will fill the void and sabotage any change effort.

4. Loss of Control: This is a key reason why employees resist change. Familiar routines help employees develop a sense of control over their work environment. Being asked to change the way they operate may make employees feel powerless and confused. People are more likely to understand and implement changes when they feel they have some form of control.

Keeping the doors of communication open and soliciting input, support, and help from employees let them know that their contributions matter. Involve them, elicit their feedback, let them volunteer for participatory roles in the change and all of these, in turn, will help give them a sense of control during periods of change.

5. Lack of Competence: This is a major reason why employees resist change. This is a fear that is difficult for employees to admit openly. But sometimes, change in organizations necessitates changes in skills, and some people will feel that they won’t be able to make the transition well. Therefore, the only way for them to try and survive is to kick against the change.

Some employees resist change because they are just hesitant to try new routines, so they express an unwillingness to learn anything new. They say things like, “I already know all that I need to know to do the job,” or “I am good at what I do why rock the boat.” Resisting employees who have already made up their minds that the change won’t work or who are reluctant to learn something new will impede the organization’s growth and adaptation to change. Frankly, they also hinder their own personal growth and development.

6. Poor Timing: This is another viable reason why employees resist change at work. Change must be introduced when there are no other major initiatives going on. Sometimes it is not what a leader does, but it is how, when and why she or he does it that creates resistance to change! Undue resistance can occur because changes are introduced in an insensitive manner or at an awkward time.

For any significant organizational change effort to be effective, organizational leadership must come out of their mahogany paneled air-conditioned offices, roll up their sleeves, and prepare a comprehensive change strategy from the onset to address barriers. If they can’t do it, then, they should delegate or hire a change management agent to design an effective change management strategy with the help of some of the organization’s managers.

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7. Lack of Reward: There is a common business saying that managers get what they reward. Organizational employees will resist change when they do not see anything in it for them in terms of rewards. Without ‘WIIFM’ or a reward, there is no motivation to support the change over the long run. This often means that organizational reward systems must be altered to support the change that management wants to implement. The reward does not have to always be major or costly.

8. Office Politics: Every organization has its own share of in-house politics. So, some employees resist change as a political strategy to “show or prove” that the change decision is wrong. They may also resist showing that the person leading the change is not up to the task. These employees are committed to seeing the change effort fail.

9. Loss of Support System: Employees already in their comfort zones, working with the managers they get along with, and who are operating within predictable routines know their support system will back them up during challenging times. Changing the organizational structures may shake their confidence in their support system. They may worry about working for a new supervisor, in a new team, or on unfamiliar projects because they fear that if they try and fail, there will be no one there to support them.

10. Former Change Experience: Our attitudes about change are partly determined by the way we have experienced a change in the past. For instance, if in your organization, you have handled change badly in the past, the employees will have good reasons for rebelling. Again, in personal lives, how employee’s families reacted to change during their early years is going to affect the way they view change. Employees, who live in the same house, shop at the same stores, visit the same social club, and drive the same routes daily throughout their formative years may have more difficulty dealing with change than people who grew up in several different neighborhoods. In the same way, those who become accustomed to associating with people who have the same values and ethics may find it more difficult to appreciate the diversity of today’s workforce.

An employee who was raised in a family that viewed change as a challenge to be tackled will probably have a more optimistic outlook about change than a person who was raised in a home that considered change an unwanted experience that upset the predictable family routine.

11. Empathy and Peer Pressure: Whether we are introverted or extroverted, we are still social creatures. Organizational stakeholders will resist change to protect the interests of a group, team friends, and colleagues. It is normal for employees to resist change to protect their co-workers. This could be pure because they sympathize with their friends because of the change that has been thrust upon them.  Managers too will resist change to protect their work groups or friends. All these behaviors can sabotage the success of any change.

12. Lack of trust and support: This is yet another vital reason why employees resist change. Successful organizational change does not occur in a climate of mistrust. Trust, involves faith in the intentions and behavior of others. In organizations where there is a high degree of trust and each individual employee is treated with respect and dignity, there is less resistance to change.

Mutual mistrust will be the bane of an otherwise well-planned change initiative. If an organization is seen as being untrustworthy as demonstrated sometime in the past, so why would any employee trust such an organization? Any sweeping changes on the job can cause employees to fear for their roles in the organization. For this reason, a well-planned outplacement support should be in place to manage and assist employees. Employees resist change because they are worried that they may not find another job easily and quickly.



Change Management Requires Leadership Clarity and Alignment

Change management is in full-force across all industries, yet many leaders are unprepared to act upon and operationalize the requirements for change to avoid business disruption. For many organizations, preparedness begins at the top and this means that leadership – across all levels – must have absolute clarity in purpose and focus; there also must be alignment in strategic philosophy and resolution goals.
Unfortunately, many organizations are slow to change as the internal politics makes it difficult to reach consensus across all levels of leadership – even when the necessity for change is urgent. This is why many companies unknowingly lose momentum as they fail to change fast enough — allowing the marketplace and competitors to pass them by.  The result: valuable time is misspent, resources applied and money invested without the required outcomes to stay competitive, keep clients satisfied and employees engaged.
It is imperative that an organization’s leaders have clarity and are in alignment with their responses to the following questions (as a result of their change management efforts):
  • What does success look like operationally and financially – and how does this benefit our employees and customers?
  • What is our mission trying to solve for the industry we serve  and how can we improve our ability to accomplish more than in the past –  so that the organization can remain competitive, become more profitable and/or achieve market leadership?
  • What resources and relationships are mandatory to accomplish our goals, achieve sustainable success and be significant in our industry?

It’s easy for leaders to say that they need to improve and invest in doing things better (either because the marketplace is telling them to or because they need to be proactive before circumstances force their hand).  The reality is that without strategy, change is merely substitution – not evolution.  Simply put, you can have an idea, but without the right strategy and execution of the idea, very little if any progress will be made.  When leaders fall into this trap, they are being irresponsible and their credibility suffers, their intentions come into question, and doubt begins to loom about their capabilities and know-how.


So what does clarity and alignment really mean?
Here is one example:  When leadership can break down the silos across functional/departmental areas in order to stimulate and operationalize diversity of thought. Through the cross-pollination of ideas and ideals the organization can be more collaborative and inspire innovative teams to solve problems and identify opportunities together – regardless of hierarchy or rank.
The clarity this example illustrates is that of a teamwork mentality, and without it nothing else matters.  This level of clarity breeds the expectation from every employee that only those willing to be a team player belong in the organization and fit the culture that is being created.  You can challenge each other and put your ideals to the test together– but acting in isolation with no respect for the team is not acceptable.
If you think about your own organization through this example, is everyone clear about the organization’s workplace culture?  Do they have the mindset and attitude that is expected from each employee and its leaders in support of its mission?  Many organizations lack clarity because there is misalignment within leadership that makes it difficult to clearly define expectations for all involved. This is why operational silos exist — forcing change management upon organizations and its employees.
It’s impossible to have clarity and alignment when the leadership teams within a company represent disjointed, disparate parts – rather than a convergence of intelligence and know-how that is in sync and strongly interconnected.
Change management is a challenge when leaders across the organization are not willing to share their intellectual capital for the betterment of a healthier whole.  In order words, leaders hold-on to the intelligence that has defined their success – perhaps indicating a hidden agenda – rather than share their success and insights with others to strengthen the intellectual capital foothold of the organization – so that it can more effectively grow and compete.
It is impossible to create an environment of clarity and alignment when transparency is missing from its leadership.  How can an organization be innovative and more competitive in the marketplace when protecting hidden agendas takes precedence over building momentum for the collective good in support of the mission?
This has historically been the case in the physician-led healthcare industry where leadership must now shift from a cottage industry to big business. Below is an example that illustrates the intellectual capital requirements for a medical institution seeking to best serve the growing number of Hispanic patients — accelerated even more by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
It is shocking to most medical institution executives that I’ve talked with that this amount of intellectual capital already exists – but not when you consider that historically there has not existed any clarity around the importance and benefits of serving Hispanic patients. As such, there has not existed any alignment amongst leaders within each major functional/departmental area. This is why the healthcare industry is not in a position to lead change management efforts to best serve the demographic shift – during a time when the demand for it is at an all-time high.
The aforementioned example explains why many organizations have difficulty aligning their internal brand (the perceived workplace environment) with their external brand (what customers expect from their products and/or services).  When the realities of both are not in alignment, it makes it difficult to sustain any real momentum and a positive reputation that matters to employees and clients.
This is why leaders must have clarity in purpose and focus and an alignment of strategic philosophy and resolution goals for their change management objectives. There must be a common language that guides execution, monitors progress and allows for course correction along the way. There must be a culture where leaders are willing to share all of their intellectual capital and everyone throughout the organization values teamwork and the urgency of breaking down silos. Above all, there must be a well thought-out, clearly defined and communicated strategy behind any change management effort – that’s where you can begin to show real leadership clarity and alignment.

Change Management and Leadership Development Have to Mesh

Leadership development and change management tend to be top priorities for many organizations. In spite of this, a majority of organizations tend to fall far short of their goals for both. One major reason organizations struggle is because they treat both leadership development and change management as separate rather than interrelated challenges. Cultural changes cannot happen without leadership, and efforts to change culture are the crucible in which leadership is developed.

For better results, organizations should coordinate their leadership development and change management efforts, approaching them as one and the same. True leadership involves deviating from cultural expectations in ways that inspire others to choose to follow. What’s more, leadership is not the sole responsibility of the C-suite. Managers at all levels of an organization must overcome resistance if genuine cultural change is to occur. Thus, change initiatives—which require a deviation from a dominant set of norms and behaviors—are the best learning environments for star managers to develop leadership skills, as well as a necessary component of a successful culture-change initiative.

How then, should organizations go about integrating their change management and leadership development initiatives? We recommend an approach that is both top-down and bottom-up.

The bottom-up part of the integrated development and change process requires potential leaders throughout the organization to engage in a process of learning how to enact a desired change in an organization’s culture in the everyday experiences of organizational life. For example, one company suddenly found itself audited at the request of their largest client and were told that they needed to change their accounting procedures. In response, many employees insisted that the changes could not be made by the demanded deadline. They were impeded by cultural beliefs around how quickly the organization could mobilize and complete complex tasks. Janet, a member of the task force assigned to handle the requirements of the audit, was participating in leadership development training at the time. Using a leadership tool we developed called the fundamental state of leadership, she decided to reach out to employees who had a stake in the new requirements to understand their perspectives (rather than wait for others with more authority to tell her what to do). She gathered new information and discovered their fears, while simultaneously coming to the realization that the deadline could be met. With this new understanding, she was able to help other employees question their beliefs and come up with creative ways to streamline the accounting procedures so as to meet the deadlines.

As part of a class assignment from her leadership training, she also reflected on the experience and used her own (and others’) reflections to inform her subsequent plans and actions. Eventually, more and more of her colleagues began to accept the importance of the accounting changes and their accompanying deadlines, and were participating in creative action. Their actions led to bottom-up change: the emerging culture and accounting policies could not have been planned in advance, but came from the ideas and actions of motivated employees and were uniquely suited to the local challenges they faced. Janet, however, was more than just a change agent in this one situation. Her planning, acting, reflecting—and planning again—demonstrated true leadership.

But a bottom-up process is unlikely to work unless it is also embedded in a top-down learning process. A top-down process creates structure and motivation for employees to maintain engagement in the change/leadership development process. If done well, it also provides emotional and social support potential leaders, because deviating from cultural expectations can be a lonely endeavor.

A successful top-down process begins with executives clarifying desired results for change management/leadership programs. For example, executives may want to change accounting procedures or inspire creativity in order to become more efficient, as in Janet’s company. Or they may want to lower barriers between departments or create financial stewardship throughout the organization. The goal depends on the organization and its situation, but what is important is that it is specific (ideally, with a measurable outcome) and accepted by all members of the executive team.

Once the goal is clear and accepted, executives can identify potential leaders throughout the organization to engage in the leadership development/change management process. These may be executive team members, people in key positions, people who have shown a passion for this specific change, people who are deemed to be “high potential,” or some combination of these characteristics. Many variables about the type of change program could drive the decision about which potential leaders to include, such as strategic, the number needed for a critical mass, the need to stage the change process, the amount of support that can be provided, geographical dispersion, the diversity of expertise or demographics involved, and so on.

Selected leaders should be given structure, accountability, support, and motivation as they engage this process—but also the freedom to create their own solutions, as Janet did with the help of the accounting team. The objectives of the change and development effort, the scope of initiative, the time frame, the type of support to be given, and the rewards for success should be made clear when invitations are extended. Classes can offer advice but the key is to instill a plan-act-reflect cycle—and then support managers as they learn on the go. The attention of senior executives and the needed financial support should be guaranteed; a worse-case scenario is for a fledging leader to have the rug pulled out from under them partway through the change and development process.

Once the structure and motivation is secured and outlined, potential leaders can launch their repeated efforts at creating experiences that enact the new objectives using the plan-act-reflect cycle. Ideally, reflections could be shared so that potential leaders learn from each other as well as from their own efforts.

Change management and leadership development programs have a woeful record at most organizations. In large part that’s because they come up against a common challenge—deviating from a dominant culture (the true test of leadership) is very difficult. Tasking managers with driving bottom-up cultural change will provide leadership training in itself. They will require top-down support to succeed.