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Overcoming Resistance to Change

change-architect-sign1Change management is hugely important. It’s also hugely difficult. The complexity involved in changing human behavior is so great that sometimes we find ourselves throwing up our hands and saying “Whatever. Everyone’ll just have to deal.” This doesn’t mean though that we should give up on it. We need recognize and invest in taking the steps necessary to help employees embrace change. The simple truth of the matter is that an organization will not realize all of the benefit from a change unless the employees are partners in the process. I’ve learned (Sometime the hard way) that the following are not sufficient reasons for employees to embrace change:

“It’s not like they have a lot of choice in the matter.”

Actually, they do have a lot of choice in the matter. In fact, they hold all the cards. If they don’t like the change, if it doesn’t benefit them, if it creates more work for them, or if it requires them to give up something they value, they won’t change their behavior. This means the change won’t stick and the organization won’t realize any of the benefits it hoped to gain.

“The benefit is they get to keep their jobs.”

That’s very magnanimous, but don’t be surprised if they choose to turn down this generous offer and go elsewhere. Or worse still, stay and deliver lackluster performance, complain ad nauseam, poison the workforce, and cost the company customers.

It’s important that we understand that employees are not indentured servants so bereft of options that they’ll dutifully accept any change we require of them. Our employees have marketable skills and personal aspirations, and with an unemployment rate of 5.6-percent (3.6-percent in Utah), it’s a buyer’s market.

Another thing to bear in mind is that there’s a world of difference between accepting change and embracing change:

  • Accepting Change

At best accepting change is passive, and at worse it’s counterproductive. For example, I accept that when winter hits in Utah it’s going to be cold and snowy. Thing is, I don’t like cold and snowy, so I don’t get out and bike or run as much as I’d like. Sure, I have a trainer and treadmill in the basement, but that’s not especially exciting, so as a result I lose fitness, get fat, and start feeling depressed. I’m not rejecting the change, but I’m not embracing it. As a result my performance suffers.

  • Embracing Change

By contrast, embracing change means investing in its success and squeezing every ounce of efficiency, effectiveness, and quality out of it. For example, those that embrace the change of seasons in Utah celebrate by hitting the slopes with gusto in the winter then jumping on their bikes in the summer. For these folks, each seasonal change brings exciting opportunities that they can hardly wait to exploit. Unlike me, they’re rocking their fitness year-round and loving every minute.

So what’s a company to do? If you want to retain your skilled talent and see them enthusiastically embrace change (and who doesn’t?), I recommend the following:

1. Communicate the Benefits of the Change – Through Their Eyes

Communicate the benefits that will come with the change, benefits that matter to those affected by the change personally—not you, the company, its investors, stakeholders, etc. Sure, you could argue that by benefiting these groups we indirectly benefit the employees, but if that’s the case then clearly state how, when, and to what degree. If you can’t do this then that may be an indicator that the benefit of those that will bear the brunt of the change is limited. If that’s the case then you’ll have a hard time selling the cause. But be honest. Sweeten the pot a little and don’t ask for too many of these type of changes and most of your employees will stay loyal.

2. Mitigate the Impact

People often resist change because it means more work for them. And with time, energy, and focus all in limited supply, more work inevitably taxes employees. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for change to impact processes and systems used today to keep the business running. A friend of mine calls this “changing a tire while driving down the freeway.” For employees to get behind and embrace the change, they need to see that you’ve taken the time to reduce the negative impact the effort could have on their work.

3. Let Them Keep What They Love

Another reason employees might resist change is because they believe that it will take something away that they value. Where possible, make sure that they don’t have to give up anything of significant value, or if you do, that you replace it with something of greater value. Otherwise what you’re essentially asking them to do is to work extra hard to lose something they care about.

4. Warn Them of What Awaits Without Change – Through Their Eyes

In theory companies change because the status quo is not sufficient and there’s an opportunity to rectify this. True, change comes at a cost, but failure to change comes at a greater costs. For change to make sense, the opportunity, minus the cost of change, must be greater than the risk of not changing, plus the money not spent in making the change. If this isn’t the case then you’re going to have a hard time creating a sense of urgency—a necessary ingredient in managing change.

To be sure, nothing about this is easy. It requires time, planning, empathy, and deliberate effort. No wonder the two cynical attitudes discussed earlier are so pervasive. They don’t require near the investment of time, energy, and resources as doing it right. But really, isn’t that true of anything worth doing?

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