Change resistance...if only we could overcome it. Wait a sec. Have you ever bought a car? Moved to a different neighborhood? Met a new friend? Started a new job? Gotten married? Decided to have a family? Joined a gym? Gone somewhere unfamiliar on vacation, or for dinner? The list can go on and on, but the point is the same. We make changes in our lives all the time. Sometimes changes happen reactively, in response to a situation we face. But we also proactively pursue change.
As human beings, we are hardwired to seek novelty. Novelty makes us feel good, and it benefits our neurological development. When we experience something new, our brain releases dopamine, the “feel good” chemical. New experiences activate the reward system in our brain, including the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA) and the amygdala. In the lab, researchers see that novelty increases brain plasticity and learning1,9.
When it comes to change in work organizations, though, excitement about novelty does not dominate conversation. Rather, “change resistance” is a common topic, with leaders, managers, and HR professionals wondering how to “get people to buy-in.” In our work supporting change in organizations, we've certainly witnessed push-back during times of instability and transformation. However, we believe there’s another story behind "change resistance" and that overlooking that story undermines change efforts.
The idea that “people resist change” is widespread. Prescriptions abound for combatting change resistance. When it comes to organizational change, some change models recommend that change champions identify the most influential people within a company to get them on board for change, assuming that they will then be able to influence others (up to 75% of people). Other recommendations point to active or potential resisters and suggest offering incentives or negotiating. Change researchers have also recommended that leaders explicitly or implicitly coerce people who are resisting change by threatening job loss, demotion, or a transfer6.
As mentioned earlier, we make changes in our lives all the time. Most people do not resist change. So where does the idea that “people resist change” come from? During times of change, it is certainly possible, and even likely, to experience and observe resistance. But if people aren’t resisting change, what are we resisting?
Looking at what is actually happening to people in an organization during change provides the answers. During times of organizational change, there is loss, real and perceived: loss of power, loss of autonomy, loss of comfort, loss of pay, and loss of security3,5.
Ultimately, people don’t resist change, we resist loss.
Loss of power occurs when people feel that status in the organization has or will decrease. Fear of power and status loss may arise during mergers, restructuring, or dramatic strategy shifts.
People experience loss of autonomy when we feel we may lose control over the work we do. Autonomy concerns may bubble up during restructuring, introduction of new policies, or conversion to new technologies, especially those that impact how daily work happens.
Loss of comfort might speak to changes in physical comfort, due to shifts in physical space or job demands (e.g., increase in hours). Loss of comfort may also refer to psychological comfort. Role ambiguity or disruptions to self-efficacy can produce psychological discomfort. For example, when learning a new technology, people may initially experience a loss of comfort.
Loss of pay and loss of security may occur if a company is downsizing, changing its rewards/compensation system, or restructuring.
People differ. It is true that some people are more averse to change (or loss) than others, based on personality and disposition. We can all think of someone we know that tends to be more routine-oriented, less comfortable with ambiguity, and more emotionally reactive to disruptions. However, we can also agree that most people we know don’t actually want a life in which everything every day is precisely the same, with total predictability.
Researchers have identified a variety of individual characteristics that contribute to dispositional change resistance. Routine seeking, cognitive rigidity, short-term focus, emotional reactiveness, and risk intolerance all predict high resistance. Oppositely, openness to change and psychological resilience predict low resistance4,7.
So, personality plays a role. However, personality combined with some work context variables only predicts 30-50% of variation in resistance8.
Focusing on change resistance is likely misguided. But loss resistance is a real possibility during periods of change and instability. As a change leader, you can help teams avert resistance even before a change is on the horizon. During change planning, you can help a team predict and reduce or soften specific losses a change might bring. As change proceeds, you can help people recognize the losses that are part of the change, as well as the gains.
Don’t Assume Resistance to Every Change Assuming resistance may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leader expectations for resistance often provoke misguided strategies in an effort to protect getting change underway. Leaders trying to outsmart assumed resistance may try to hide a change until it’s “fully baked” and ready for implementation. They may not provide full information about the nature of the change. Or they may wait to introduce several changes at once, essentially betting that some will sneak past the resistance radar in the shadow of others.
Although leaders employing strategies to protect a change have good intentions, they can inadvertently feed resistance. Low levels of communication during change reduce trust. A leader who is holding back information in a well-intentioned effort to avoid provoking resistance may find that people fear the leader is trying to hide something because it is harmful to the team.
Look at a Change through a Gain / Loss Lens Identify the specific perceived or real losses that may occur for various groups and roles within the organization. Look for loss of power, loss of autonomy, loss of comfort, loss of pay, and loss of security. For each type of loss, find the gains. Frame the change in terms of gains and opportunities.
For example, implementing a new online system to track workflow may lead to loss of comfort. Frame this change in terms of growth and opportunity. Perhaps the new system will make hand-offs easier. Or reduce administrative forms. It might save time compared to the current system. Maybe it’s accessible from home, which will allow for more flextime.
Mitigate Perceived and Real Loss With the understanding that loss and threats may lead to resistance, think about ways to mitigate loss as much as possible, whether perceived or real.
To combat perceived loss, increase communication and awareness. Leaders who are actively involved in change planning have plenty of time to process ideas about change. People who weren’t involved in change planning may need some extra time to “catch up” in making sense of the changes. Promote participation. Engaging team members earlier in the change process can reduce uncertainty.
Connect to purpose - why change is happening. Build trust. Be honest, take time to listen to team members’ thoughts and concerns, and provide support.
Unfortunately, sometimes loss is inevitable. New technologies and downsizing can lead to job loss. Leaders should look to see whether losses can be reduced in any way. From there, it is crucial to be honest, transparent, and fair about what is happening and why. Once again, connecting change to an overarching purpose can create perspective.
Understand the Root Cause If resistance occurs during change, spend some time trying to understand why. Not all resistance is created equal. The strategies to move past resistance differ based on the underlying trigger.
Solicit input and feedback. Talk with people who seem hesitant. Work to understand the underlying concerns. Are people worried about job loss? Are people concerned that a change will bring workload increases and thus loss of autonomy or comfort?
With a better understanding of losses that are triggering resistance, you’ll be able to implement specific strategies to build change support.
Strategies to Move from Resistance to Support Are Not One-Size-Fits-All There are hundreds of strategies online to help move past resistance during change. While many of them do tap into best practices (i.e., communicate often and transparently, foster trust between leaders and teams, promote participation in a change effort), the best best practice is to align actions with specific resistance triggers.
The feeling of being an important and valued member of a team, of an organization, of a mission, and of a community can come from many signals and experiences. During change, leaders may need to help people reframe how team members gain and maintain status. Leaders can predict and celebrate change “wins” with the team and recognize important change contributions of team members. Leaders can help people see and experience status in new ways as a group, and as members within the group.
Leaders can deliberately provide opportunities for the team to make choices, share input, test new ideas out together in a spirit of active learning, and otherwise participate in the broader change effort. Having a say in exactly how change happens can bring back feelings of autonomy.
Physical: If changes are increasing job demands or temporarily slowing performance, leaders can acknowledge, recognize, and appreciate extra time and effort. For changes to physical space, we’ve seen huge success from creative change engagement.
Efficacy: When change brings a learning curve that is essentially a hit to efficacy, leaders have an opportunity to invest in education, training, mentoring, and deliberate support systems to help people quickly restore confidence in themselves and one another.
Uncertainty: Leaders can mitigate feelings of uncertainty by presenting and reinforcing an inspiring vision that connects to the company’s mission and purpose. Leaders can also guide teams to create clear swimlane processes to help team members form shared expectations of upstream and downstream work.
When change carries loss of pay or job insecurity, clear communication is important. If some jobs are affected, the way the organization handles the situation has a huge impact. Severance timelines, outplacement support, and farewell approaches may matter more to those who are staying with the organization than to those who are moving on.
When loss of pay and security are unfounded fears, leaders, managers, and HR professionals can dispel rumors, and focus everyone on the positive aspirations for where the change will take the organization and on early wins.
So, next time you’re tempted to anticipate resistance during change, look deeper. Figure out what loss a change will bring, real or perceived. Address loss as a root cause for resistance. Wherever possible, remove loss as a source of drain and distraction. Help team members consider loss and help each other process loss together. Then, look for the novelty inherent in the change and help people explore change as a welcome new adventure.