How to Deal with a Resistant Team
Change is a constant shared by all living beings, and usually, it’s a sign of good health. This also applies to organisations and businesses. In today’s economic and social climate, it is important to understand that change is no longer optional.
And yet, most of the time and for most of us, change can be difficult to understand and to accept, especially where we’re not the ones instigating it. Navigating change is a complex process that involves people from all levels within an organisation, with different backgrounds, skills and knowledge. They will each bring their own unique values, perspectives and emotions and so it’s little wonder we encounter some resistance at times.
Types of change resistance
Depending upon where the resistance originates, resistance may be individual, organisational or external (e.g. from external stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, representative bodies or other interested parties). Resistance can also be covert or overt.
From a behavioural standpoint, it may be useful to consider three types of resistance:
Rational and logical
Adjusting to change requires actual time and effort from everyone involved. Even when people understand the necessity for change and the benefits that it will bring, there are short term costs they need to pay:
- They need to make extra efforts to re-learn their current position
- As a result of the change, their working conditions may seem (or be) less desirable
- They need time to adjust, which takes away from time to perform their actual duties
- They may question the technological and economic feasibility of change
Organisational change triggers emotional responses. People may fear the unknown, grieve their current position or status quo or feel their security threatened. Leaders and change managers must remain aware of these feelings, even when they think they are unjustified. Psychological resistance may manifest as:
- Lack of interest and/or commitment in change-related activities or tasks
- Expressing dislike of leaders and change managers
- Manifesting lack of trust in each other
- Expressing a desire to keep the current status quo
- Constantly needing reassurance
Change may be seen as a mechanism to challenge current norms, values and group interests. An organisation’s culture is a powerful force, and change managers must be aware of it when they want to implement changes. Some of the aspects/questions that must be carefully considered include:
- Existing group relationships and how they are affected by the proposed change
- Political conditions
- Does someone involved in the change process have a vested interest in maintaining the current status quo?
- Does the change oppose the existing values?
Key factors that can have a significant effect on an employee’s resistance to change
Behavioural scientists have studied the change process for a while now and from many different perspectives. They’ve found that some factors determine how people will react to imminent change. These include:
Individual differences model people’s personalities and make each of them unique. Some prefer individual work while others thrive when they feel part of a team. For some, rules must be followed, while others believe rules shall be broken or at least challenged. An individual’s personality plays an important part in how they will react to change.
Gender, age and educational level are some of the demographic factors that have a significant impact on how someone reacts to change. While it’s not recommended to make assumptions based on these factors, it is important to recognise how they can play for or against a change process.
Seniority at work
While it seems that change may be more difficult for employees who have been with an organisation for a long time, this is not always the case. New hires may have more trouble feeling secure, while senior employees may want to keep the status quo because of the benefits it brings to them. Either way, it is important to determine how each employee’s particular situation may play when implementing change.
Several behaviours indicate resistance to change. Some are easily recognised, such as anger or sadness, but for some others (such as anxiety or fear), change managers and leaders need to pay closer attention. Indicators of resistance may include productivity halts, or employees being more prone to making mistakes and/or paying less attention to their day-to-day tasks. According to behavioural psychology, resistance behaviours can be divided into four categories:
This especially affects employees who are used to following directions and rules, and who need clear goals. Disoriented employees may seem distracted or not engaged with activities regarding the change. They are usually the easiest to manage, as the only thing they need is to understand what’s expected of them to participate more actively. Change managers can help by providing a general vision or framework and walking them through the process of understanding where they fit in. Disorientation can also come from a lack of skills related to the change, in which case managers need to implement training activities.
Dis-identification affects employees who feel their sense of identity and capability threatened by the change process. Usually, it manifests in behaviours that heighten the advantages of the “old” way of doing things (e.g. working under old procedures instead of new ones), because they feel they have mastery over them. Helping disidentified employees starts by making them part of the change process and helping them develop a sense of ownership over it. Clear communication and training are crucial for them, as is an empathic manager or leader who can help them navigate their feelings of anxiety. Company culture and values play a major role in helping these employees feel at ease. When the general environment is inviting and prioritises teamwork, these employees will find their way easier.
When employees feel threatened, they may lose interest in their daily activities. While they might still be physically there, they are not present. Their productivity and attention to detail suffer, and they lack commitment. Disengaged employees need to be confronted, but in a way that helps them pinpoint problematic behaviours and understand the ones that are expected. Change managers need to establish open communication mechanisms, with the specific goal of helping them navigate through negative emotions and into an acceptance stage.
The behaviours of a disenchanted employee are very easy to spot: they express anger and negativity towards the change process, and may even want to group their colleagues to fight it. Change managers need to help these individuals neutralise their emotions and reactions, but they need to be careful not to dismiss them. Disenchanted employees need to be heard, and they need to develop coping mechanisms to accept the “new way” of doing things.
Understanding what’s behind resistance to change
Resistance is a natural protection mechanism against a perceived danger. Resistance to change in an organisation may have many explanations. Some of the most common ones are:
People feel the need to protect their job security
It is no secret that organisational change can lead to the loss of jobs. When leaders explain that changes are happening, the immediate response is fear. Will people be able to keep their jobs? Will the change result in fewer benefits or privileges?
Poorly defined reward systems or lack thereof
Navigating organisational change demands extra efforts from employees; whether it is learning new skills or dedicating more time to implement changes. To engage them in the process, they need to be able to answer the question: what’s in it for me?
Poor communication systems and lack of feedback
To be part of a process, people need to understand it. When they feel that the change “is happening” to them instead of recognising themselves as agents of change, they will become resistant. They not only need to understand why the change is needed, but they also need to feel that their voice is heard regarding their implementation concerns.
Poor implementation approach and change manager’s biases
Change managers and leaders may be so invested in a change process that they lose sight of important issues (such as employee satisfaction). When change managers focus solely on the technical aspects of change and forget about how it may affect the people implementing it, resistance will ensue.
When a change process is defined by leaders who lack understanding of the operational processes of an organisation, they may set unrealistic goals. Employees who are forced to work towards something they believe is unachievable will become disengaged and angry.
Lack of recognition of employee’s experience and skills
This is especially relevant when change managers are external consultants, or when leaders are disengaged from the day-to-day operations. Expecting people to do things in a “new way” may challenge their sense of knowledge and capacity. It is extremely important to help them feel valued and understood.
While leaders and change managers may understand why a change is necessary, for some people, it means a loss of power or comfort.
The role of leaders and change managers
Organisational leaders and change managers are responsible for applying different strategies and frameworks to steer the status quo from its current state to the desired state. Change managers need to develop a real and profound understanding of their workforce. They need to be aware of who they are working with to generate effective tactics to help those people navigate the change process. When facing employee resistance, their role is to:
- Minimise opposition by clearly explaining the goals of the change process and the role of each employee in it. They need to keep open communication channels that allow concerned individuals to express their negative emotions.
- Engage all staff members by listening to what they have to say, addressing their concerns and answering their questions. Each of them needs to feel that their participation is important to achieve the general goals.
- Define the stages of implementation. Change cannot happen overnight. Change managers need to define stages and help all team members understand them. It is also important to allow flexibility into these stages, as change is not a linear process and likely, stages will need to be revised and re-worked several times.
- Coordinate communication efforts, and offer everyone involved a chance to express their ideas and feelings.
- Design and implement feedback loops, and help people feel confident in sharing their opinions.
- Establish training needs and goals.
- Understand and address the social aspects of change.
- Establish and communicate a reward system. Most change management models recommend setting short-term goals and celebrating each accomplishment as a mechanism to keep employees engaged.
- A difficult but important task of change managers is to identify employees that will not likely participate in the change process and either help them transition to an acceptance stage or let them go.
What about coercion?
Organisations may employ coercive tactics to manage resistance to change, especially when changes need to be implemented fast or when they are temporary. By nature, coercion can be explicit or implicit. Either way, it means threatening employees into participating in a change out of fear of losing their jobs, benefits or privileges. We’ve seen many instances of coercion, especially when changes are due to economic reasons (for example, when employees are forced to take pay cuts to keep their jobs, or when they have to cover longer shifts because of staffing issues). While coercion may seem like a speedy and easy way to implement change, it does not address important issues that will arise later, endangering the whole change process. Normal feelings of fear, anger and anxiety can not be “threatened away”, and the organisation will end up with employees who accept changes out of fear but will start looking for other jobs.
It is important for change managers and organisational leaders to be careful about perceived coercion. While mechanisms such as performance reviews and mandatory training are important for organisational success, employees must not participate out of fear of retaliation. Coercive power must be used with caution and only after exhausting all other options.
Recognising the benefits of resistance
Even when leaders and change managers aim to minimise resistance, they also need to understand that resistance has some advantages. First, resistance is an excellent way to assess company culture and understand organisational climate; both aspects are crucial to implementing any change. Resistance also encourages leaders to plan more carefully and to communicate their plans more effectively. When certain changes generate no resistance, leaders and change managers must dive deeply into understanding the reasons why. Ideally, employees perfectly understand what’s happening and their role in the process, but more likely, they are concealing their feelings out of fear (of losing their jobs, or retaliation from their managers and supervisors).
Organisational change is not elective. Businesses and companies that adapt are the ones that are most likely to succeed. However, change is a deeply social process, and regardless of the nature of the change (technological, economic, etc), the people involved in it need to be on board and participating for it to be successful. Resistance to change is normal, and to some extent, beneficial (when it’s transitory), but leaders and change managers need to recognise when resistance happens, why it happens and how to help employees cope. They have an important role as mentors and coaches who are there to listen to their teams and offer solutions. Many change management models help define strategies to implement a change, and they all have aspects in common, such as the need for open communication, the importance of helping all team members understand the necessity for change and the fact that change is not a linear process, but one in which many revisions will likely be needed.
In today’s business climate, change is happening all the time, and it is highly likely that when a company is at the finishing stages of one change, another one is already starting (or already in process). Therefore, it is so important to build a company culture in which employees are completely comfortable with change and feel they are a key part of making it happen, rather than simply on the receiving end. They need to feel listened to, understood and able to freely express their concerns and fears. While each change is different in nature, organisations can create a culture and readiness for change and an acceptance that change is a part of everyday life and not something to be afraid of. Underpinning all of this is trust, recognising different, individual aspects that may affect how each employee reacts to a change process and developing ways to encourage staff to engage and explore without fear of recrimination. Challenging ourselves and those around us to grow beyond what we thought possible. Isn’t that what most of us would want anyway?
Mark has over 25 years’ experience in fast paced transformational change, often in highly complex and political situations. He founded Applied Change 10 years ago with a clear purpose to push the thinking on human behaviour and human centred change. Most recently he’s been working closely with University of the West of England (UWE) Psychological Sciences Research Group to develop simple, practical models and tools that re-orientate our approach to business change, starting from the human perspective.