By Nick Sturman
How we respond to change depends entirely on the way it is communicated. The truth is, change can be a threat, opportunity or neither.
The suggestion that change isn’t the problem, it’s the people resisting the change, is often brandished in defence of failed change programmes. It is both disingenuous and lacks real accountability. (How many times have you heard that well-worn cliche “change is the only constant”? (If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this trotted out in defence of every change agenda, I’d own a small island in the Bahamas.)
The four top reasons I hear for failure of change, in order of frequency, are:
- Resistance to change
- Management behaviour to support change
- Inadequate resources or budget
Some 95% of projects that fail, do so through the social and emotional aspects of the change.
What does ‘resistance’ really mean?
Research reveals three different states of resistance: a cognitive state, an emotional state, and a behavioural state.
The view that employee resistance can be overcome cognitively suggests that negative thoughts or beliefs about the change exist. Therefore, what’s often labelled as “resistance” is actually reluctance.
And that’s completely normal because - and research supports this - humans are designed for survival so our natural defence mechanism kicks in when there’s lack of clarity over the change, which raises our levels of anxiety and frustration.
As a result, we’re naturally nervous and reluctant about the change. From my experience, and views widely shared in the industry, reluctance turns into resistance when people perceive that a change is a threat.
What drives the fear of change?
At the heart of it, our behaviours are driven by our emotions. These may also be influenced by external factors such as the organisational structure and culture.
All behaviour is driven by emotion; and there are two types of resistance behaviour at play: active and passive. This is crucial to understanding “change psychology”.
In order to diagnose the change psychology, which is very complex, we need to understand the audiences’ states of mind. Active resistance arises when people take specific or deliberate actions to resist change, such as public statements or gathering others to help in the “resistance movement”; or hostility or sabotage.
Passive resistance is the opposite. It’s when people are quiet. They may agree but then do nothing and/or not fulfill their commitments. Passive is much more difficult to realise and address. It is normally resolved through public commitment and continued follow-up.
Why do people resist change?
All types of resistance to change share one common theme - fear.
Fear is a powerful emotion and drives behaviour in many different directions. The fear of the unknown, fear of learning, fear of job loss, adopting something they don’t want, leaving the familiar, ambiguity, misunderstanding, etc. These factors all feed fear which ultimately erodes trust in the process when there is no buy-in to the agenda and no line of sight to the end goal.
Organisational structure also affects the success of change agendas. Often people will resist change when there is a perceived loss of status which can also be an emotional attachment to their sense of ‘place’ (which could be as simple as their desk location - how many times have organisations attempted hot-desking as a solution and wondered why so people resisted the idea?).
Organisational structures influence the organisation’s culture, and the culture reinforces the structure. It’s a symbiotic, circular relationship that is often overlooked and poorly understood.
The organisation’s culture is also influenced by a range of factors - the values, beliefs, and cultural ethnocentrism of its staff. Often there is an incompatibility between the cultural traits and with the change agenda - oftenglobal organisations fail to take into full account their “local cultures” which usually ends up in failed change programmes.
Capacity for change
I’m referring to the organisation’s own ability to plan its change programme and resource it properly. Often organisations fail to assess their capacity properly for delivering their change programme successfully.
Although‘Heads of Change’, or the sponsors and stakeholders plan out their change portfolio, they only look at the resource capacity of their ‘book of work’, or change delivery team.
The lack of capacity planning only fuels the tide of reluctance and ultimately generates resistance to change. In short, most change programmes a doomed to fail from the start when they fail to plan properly. As the saying goes: failure requires little preparation.
We need to develop the change agenda through human-centered design. We need to understand the real issues that will cause “pain” and potential resistance to the change programme.
We also need to ensure the basic building blocks are in place when delivering the change:
● communication has to be timely, accurate and relevant;
● facilitation among staff and stakeholders to ensure everyone is properly engaged;
● education across the relevant sections of the workforce about the case for change;
● participation and deep engagement of all the relevant staff and stakeholders in the design and delivery of the change programme; and
● negotiation if necessary to ensure that the change goes ahead successfully.
When there is resistance, change leaders need to understand the reasons by pausing, listening, empathising, and responding with respect and compassion.
Same-same, just different
The truth is this: it’s the same but it’s changing. In other words, everything is changing. The political, environmental, financial and technological (among many others) are rapidly changing the way we work and live.
It’s the way in which we design in change that will make the difference. It’s an exciting time to be in “change management” (although I don’t believe change can ever be really managed, but it can be facilitated better).