Resistance to change

It's a common myth that people inevitably resist change.

The truth is that people’s response to change varies widely and depends, amongst other things, on their personality, on the change they are being presented with and how the change impacts on them personally.

Some individuals are more flexible than others, more inquisitive, more resilient and so on. Indeed, our different attitudes to change are an essential aspect of some personality theories.

Our attitudes to change also depend on several factors about the change itself.

What makes us more/less likely to accept change?

Research suggests that people are more likely to support a particular change when any of the following conditions are met:

  • They are already unhappy with the current situation and convinced of the need for change
  • They think that the changes suggested will improve the situation
  • The likely benefits to themselves outweigh the likely costs
  • They are involved in the change process
  • The culture is supportive
  • They trust the person or group initiating the changes
  • Their optimism about the process of making the change happen outweighs their anxieties
  • Uncertainty about the future is minimized by good communication

In other words, to unleash people’s enthusiasm for change they must see links between their current discontent, the changes suggested and the likely success of the change process itself. The clearer the links are, the more the more positive the response will be.

This gives us our first clue about how to communicate successfully with people we want to involve in the change process.

The commitment spectrum

Our second clue is to recognise that, because the change will have different impacts on different people, we will have a whole spectrum of different attitudes to the proposed change. These will range from people being unaware (or even in denial) about likely impacts, through hostility and resistance to the changes, lukewarm acceptance that the changes are a good idea, right through to outright enthusiasm for them.

So there will likely be a wide range of positions on the commitment spectrum for the change leader to address. But note, this is not people being blindly “resistant to change”. Responses are individual assessments based on the information people have.

But at the outset we should expect the enthusiasm of the initiators of the change – who may have been working on the ideas for some time – to be higher than the average initial enthusiasm of people who are just being made aware of the changes for the first time.

Our communications about change should be directly linked to the concerns and hopes that people have. Our "Building commitment to change" development exercise takes you through this step-by-step

Communicating about change

Given that we want to communicate well with people with a wide variety of opinions about our change, we’re going to need several strings to our bow.

We’re going to want to keep people as well informed as we possibly can - to build awareness of the changes, engage people and to mobilize and sustain their commitment. In short, we are going to need a change communication strategy.

1. Build awareness

Especially for those who are currently unaware of the changes, we will want to describe them in a way that allays people’s concerns and emphasises how the changes will resolve existing concerns that they themselves may have.

As mentioned on the communicating page on the website different people like their information in different ways, and it is important to cover a variety of approaches. Some people want to know about the big strategic picture behind the changes, some want to know how it will affect them and their team-mates personally and so on. It may be worth having a website, an individual or a helpdesk that people can link to to find out answers to specific questions they may have.

For those who are happy enough with the status quo it may be important to emphasise what is not going to change to give them the re-assurance of some continuity.

2. Engage

In trying to move people on from awareness to active engagement with the change, once more it helps to use different formats: workshops and discussion groups work best for some people, one-to-one discussions or emails for others.

It helps to be able to outline what will happen when so that people are re-assured and know what to expect. It is also important at this stage to listen to people’s concerns and respond to them. Reservations people have about your plan may be well-founded, and their resistance may improve your changes. Handling these concerns with fairness and consistency will help people to trust you and buy-in to the process.

3. Mobilize

To mobilize people more actively you must make the path look do-able and the first steps easy. At this stage you may need to emphasise the top-level backing for the changes and find change champions with enough influence to carry the changes forward locally.

As the team or individual initiating the change your job now becomes one of regularly checking with your change champions and removing roadblocks so that they can actually get on with driving the implementation.

4. Sustain

Eventually you are able to step back from the detail into the ambassadorial role of publicizing the successes of the change champions.

Emphasise how the improvements have resolved initial unhappiness and built hope for the future. Successful change will become part of the team and organization’s self-belief and narrative for the future - an important step in creating a can-do culture.