Are your staff resisting change – or do you just think they are?

Sarah Lewis
Change takes energy and long hours and high stress (Source: Getty)

"People don’t like change.” “It’s a struggle to get staff to embrace change.” These are complaints I often hear – but are they rooted in reality?

In my experience managers often misunderstand why staff ‘resist’ change. They see resistance where in fact there isn’t any. Or they unwittingly communicate the need for change in a way that triggers resistance.

For example, if, when telling someone about a change initiative you don’t make it clear how it’s relevant to them or how they need to engage with it, the likelihood is it won’t register with their conscious brain and so no behaviour change takes place.

We see this as resistance, when really it’s lack of engagement and understanding.

This reaction is similar to the one displayed by staff who feel overworked. Dealing with stress takes ‘brain power’ and so does creating a new habit – so it can feel as though we just don’t have enough processing power to focus on the required changes.

Another reaction that is often mistaken for resistance is the fight, flight or freeze response. The part of the brain that assesses danger is very sensitive and change can feel dangerous if it’s not understood.

If there is a history of change badly done or of ineffectual change initiatives, this can trigger a ‘they’re crying wolf’ or a ‘heads down and this too will pass’ reaction.

And there’s fatigue. Organisations and people can suffer from change fatigue. Change takes energy and long hours and high stress can render people incapable of responding positively - even if they want to.

Sometimes there’s a good reason to push back. Others may see things that the change originators can’t. They can easily be misheard as protecting their own interests, so their legitimate objections are discounted and they’re labelled resistors.

In the end, people are emotional beings and sometimes, even if the change ‘makes sense’, they delay making it. For example, the need to deliver bad news; people may accept the need but delay the action. This looks like resistance.

In order to encourage people to embrace change we need to acknowledge the impact; acknowledge previous bad experiences; involve people in identifying the need and designing the response to change.

We must incorporate their local knowledge; engage people’s positive future oriented emotions by co-creating ideas of how the future can be; actively support the creation of new behaviour habits to make it easy to do the new thing, and to do it right.

And we need to adopt more psychologically-based change approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry, World Café and Open Space.

By understanding that not everything that looks like resistance actually is, you can help your team embrace change quickly and effectively.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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