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How to Reduce Employee Resistance to Change in the Workplace

BY SUSAN M. HEATHFIELD   Updated on February 04, 2021

Resistance to change is a natural reaction when employees are asked, well, to change. Change is uncomfortable and requires new ways of thinking and doing. People have trouble developing a vision of what life will look like on the other side of a change. So, they tend to cling to the known rather than embrace the unknown.

Employees don't fear change, though, they fear the unknown. They fear being changed. They fear being out of control.

Change Creates Anxiety and Uncertainty

Employees may lose their sense of security. They may prefer the status quo. The range of reactions, when change is introduced, is unpredictable.

No employee is left unaffected by most changes. As a result, resistance to change often occurs when change is introduced.


Your Expectations Play a Role in Employee Resistance

Resistance to change is best viewed as a normal reaction. Even the most cooperative, supportive employees may experience resistance.

So, don't introduce change believing that you will experience nothing but resistance or that resistance will be severe.

Instead, introduce change with a positive spirit and believe that your employees want to cooperate, make the best of each work situation and that they will completely and enthusiastically support the changes as time goes by.

Note: By your thinking and your approach, you can affect the degree to which resistance bogs the change down. You can reduce natural resistance by the actions you take and how you involve the employees. Deep in their hearts, they want to become part of the bigger picture of the organization.

Communication and Input Reduce Resistance

In a best-case scenario, every employee has the opportunity to talk about, provide input to, and have an impact on the changes you are pursuing. Rationally, this depends on how big the change is and how many people the change will affect.

In a company-wide change effort, for example, the employee input will most likely affect how to implement the changes at a departmental level, not the issue of whether to make the changes in the first place. The overall direction, in these cases, comes from senior leaders who have solicited feedback from their reporting staff.

Forming a Leadership Team

In some cases, a leadership team to lead the changes organizationally is established. These teams may contain a cross-section of employees from across the organization. Or, they are often staffed by managers and senior leaders who have consequential oversight for portions of the organization.

If communication is a strength in your organization, the opportunity for input may have reached down to the frontline soldiers. But, this is often not the case, because the input and feedback have to make their way back through all of the filters presented by middle management.

These recommendations are made for the millions of managers, supervisors, team leaders, and employees who are asked to change something—or everything—periodically at work. You may or may not have had input into the direction chosen by your senior leaders or your organization.

Tip: But, as the core doers at work, you are expected to make the changes and deal with any resistance to change that you may experience along the way. You can reduce employee resistance to change by taking these recommended actions at each stage.

Manage Resistance to Change

These tips will help you minimize, reduce, and make less painful, the resistance that you create as you introduce changes. This is not the definitive guide to managing resistance to change—but implementing these suggestions will give you a head start.

Own the Changes

No matter where the change originated—and change can show up at any point in your organization, even originating with you—you must own the change yourself. It's your responsibility to implement the change. You can only do that effectively if you plan how you will implement the change with the people you influence or oversee in your organization.

Get Over It

Okay, you've had the opportunity to tell senior managers what you think. You spoke loudly in the focus group. You presented your recommended direction, with data and examples, to the team. The powers that be have chosen a different direction than the one you supported.

It's time to move on. Once the decision is made, your agitating time is over. Whether you agree or not, once the organization, the group, or the team decides to move on—you need to do everything in your power to make the selected direction succeed. Anything else is sabotage, and it will make your life miserable. It can even get you fired.

No Biased and Fractional Support Allowed

Even if you don't support the direction, once it is decided, you owe it 100 percent of your leadership and support. Wishy-washy or partial support is undermining the effort—it won't earn you any points from your managers or senior leaders or cause your coworkers and reporting staff to respect you.

If you can't buy into the fact that the chosen direction is where you are going, you can, at least, buy into the fact that it is critical that you support it. Once the direction is chosen, it is your job to make it work. Anything less is disrespectful, undermining, and destructive of the senior leaders' direction.

Note: Support the change or it's time for you to move on and out. (Don't wait for your senior leaders to terminate your employment for non-support. You can do a lot of damage while waiting for the end to come.)

Minimize Resistance

If your employees think that you are honest, trust you, and feel loyal to you, they are much more likely to get on board with the changes quickly.

So, the efforts that you have expended in building this type of relationship will serve you well during the change implementation. (They will serve you well in general, but especially during times of stress and change.)

Communicate the Change

You undoubtedly have reporting staff, departmental colleagues, and employees to whom you must communicate the change. How you communicate the change to the people you influence has the single most important impact on how much resistance to change will occur.

One of the key factors is an environment in which there is a widespread belief that a change is needed. So, one of your first tasks in effective communication is to build the case for "why" the change was needed.

Specifically, inform the employees about what your group can and cannot affect. Spend time discussing how to implement the change and make it work. Answer questions; share your earlier reservations, but state that you are on board and going to make the change work now.

Ask the employees to join you in that endeavor because only the team can make the change happen. Stress that you have knowledge, skills, and strengths that will help move the team forward, and so does each of the team members. All are critical to making the changes work—and gee, life after the changes may get better.

Help the Employees Identify What's in it For Them to Make the Change

A good portion of resistance disappears when employees are clear about the benefits the change brings to them.

Benefits to the group, the department, and the organization should be stressed, too. But, nothing is more important to an individual employee than to know the positive impact on their own career or job.

Tip: Additionally, employees must feel that the time, energy, commitment, and focus necessary to implement the change are compensated equally by the benefits they will attain from making the change.

Happier customers, increased sales, a pay raise, recognition from the boss, and an exciting new role or project are examples of ways in which you can help employees feel compensated for the time and energy that any change requires.

Listen Empathetically to the Employees

You can expect that the employees will experience the same range of emotions that you experienced when the change was introduced to you. Never minimize an employee's response to even the most simple change.

You can't know or experience the impact of an individual employee's point of view. Maybe the change seems insignificant to many employees, but the change will seriously impact another employee's favorite task. Hearing the employees out and letting them express their point of view in a non-judgmental environment will reduce resistance to change.

Empower Employees to Contribute

Control of their own jobs is one of the five key factors in what employees want from work. This control aspect follows when you seek to minimize resistance to change. Give the employees control over any aspect of the change that they can manage.

If you have communicated transparently, you have provided the direction, the rationale, the goals, and the parameters that have been set by your organization. Within that framework, your job is to empower the employees to make the change work.

Practice effective delegation and set the critical path points at which you need feedback for the change effort—and get out of their way.

Create a Feedback and Improvement Loop

Do these steps mean that the change that was made is the right or optimal change? Not necessarily. You must maintain an open line of communication throughout your organization to make sure that feedback reaches the ears of the employees leading the charge.

Changing details, continuous improvement, and tweaking is a natural and expected part of any organizational change. Most changes are not poured in concrete, but there must be a willingness to examine the improvement (plan, do, study, take additional action).

If you implement your change in an organizational environment that is employee-oriented, with transparent communication and a high level of trust, you have a huge advantage.

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