There’s no question that change is hard for any organization. Unfortunately, many change initiatives fail to achieve their goals.
Overcoming resistance to change is usually high on the list of many leader’s concerns, which is understandable given that making any kind of change is next to impossible without sufficient buy-in throughout the organization. A good change management plan, however, should already have several strategies in place for overcoming resistance to change and be prepared to answer tough questions about the process.
5 Tips for Overcoming Resistance to Change
1. Set Realistic Goals
Change management is difficult under the best of circumstances. It takes time to overcome organizational inertia and change longstanding practices. Setting overly ambitious goals will only place additional pressure on the change management team responsible for implementing the initiative and the employees who are impacted by it.
The situation is only made more difficult when there is no track record of success when it comes to change management. If the organization has tried to make changes in the past and failed, people will be skeptical that the current goals are achievable. While leadership often wants to undertake radical transformations, setting their goals too high or being too aggressive with the timeline can be barriers. By setting more modest and achievable goals, it’s easier to demonstrate to stakeholders how the organization can successfully move from one point to another.
2. Expect Resistance
If there’s one certainty that accompanies every change initiative, it’s that there will be resistance from somewhere. Change management requires leaders to think about how the changes they’re proposing will impact others. It’s easy to become wrapped up in the broader view of issues, focusing on how the changes will benefit the organization as a whole while failing to consider what those changes could mean for employees.
Simply brushing aside concerns and expecting employees to “deal with it” is a recipe for disaster. Many of those employees will need to buy into the changes in order for them to be successful. Without that buy-in, organizations can expect to deal with varying degrees of opposition or even lower levels of performance as people deal with the problems created by change. Consulting a wide range of stakeholders beforehand can help to minimize resistance and provide a good idea of what kind of resistance should be expected. The people being impacted by change should be involved early and often to help improve decision making and buy-in. Forming a cross-functional team with representatives from these stakeholders to facilitate dialogue can make it easier to manage potential resistance.
3. Understand the Reasons for Resistance
There are a variety of reasons why people are resistant to change. Fear is usually the biggest motivator, especially if there is a great deal of uncertainty about how changes will affect people. In other cases, resistance may be the result of interdepartmental or even interpersonal rivalries. If leadership has not made a strong commitment to change, it can often be difficult to convince established and experienced leaders to shake up the status quo. And, of course, it’s also worth pointing out that sometimes resistance is a completely rational and necessary response to a change initiative that was not well thought out and has little possibility of success.
When addressing opposition to change, it’s important to first identify the underlying motivations of that resistance. In some instances, resistance could simply be due to a lack of communication. More often, the disruptive effects of major organizational changes are much more fundamental, forcing people to move outside their comfort zones and worry about their future. By identifying concerns and connecting them to resistant behaviors, it’s easier to address specific issues and effects associated with change in ways that are both reassuring and empowering. Leaders should also keep in mind that the questions and concerns they perceive as “resistance” may be a natural part of the transition process as employees work to understand how the changes will impact them and prepare to make them.
4. Make the Case for Change
When an organization rolls out a major change initiative, it’s usually in response to a significant challenge or problem that makes it difficult to move forward. Longstanding stakeholders often don’t see the need for change thanks to status quo bias. They may point out that the organization has always done things a certain way in the past and that those practices have served it well. While this may be true, it fails to ask the critical question of whether that will continue to be the case in the future.
The burden falls to change advocates to lay out the necessity for changes, explaining why the changes are necessary and what they will enable the organization to do going forward. It’s important to remember that not all employees have the same perspective. While things may seem to be working well in their own department, they may be oblivious to problems elsewhere or not even realize how their own practices are far less efficient than they think. Whatever the reason, it’s important to be able to explain to them why difficult changes are necessary from more of a “big picture” perspective.
In addition to making the business case for change, leadership needs to be clear about how the changes will be executed. Realistic goals and time frames should be established. Leaders must allocate sufficient resources and be transparent about what the plan will look like in practice. When employees feel like they know what’s going to happen, they can better prepare for the transition and manage the demands it places upon them. Leaders should also be up-front about the potential challenges that may develop along the way so no one feels blindsided when obstacles emerge.
5. Identify and Involve Non-Supporters
Implementing change shouldn’t be an exercise in authoritarian leadership. Simply forcing people to make changes will generally lead to much greater resistance in the form of disengagement, turnover, and negative behaviors. One of the best ways to secure support for change initiatives is to identify the people who are not supportive of change and incorporate them into the process.
This approach is largely inspired by models of positive conflict resolution. Even if the non-supporters do not manage to dissuade anyone from their efforts, they will be more likely to support the process if they feel like their voices were heard early on in the process. In some cases, their feedback can bring much-needed perspective to the change management team and help it to refine plans in ways that are much more likely to gain widespread support.
Making changes of any kind to an organization is a difficult process. Even minor changes can be incredibly disruptive and should not be taken for granted. That’s why it’s critically important for a change management plan to have a solid strategy in place for how to manage resistance in all its forms. Failing to address these challenges in the planning stages can result in significant delays and other problems later in the process, potentially endangering the success of the project itself.