A manager welcomes resistance because it’s a sign of change process unfolding

2017-12-04 10:40:00

So, your company finally decided that a new process or system needs to be introduced to your workplace. Today, we take a look at some of the problems and objections that may follow this decision. However good your preparation and planning, you can still experience problems if you don’t dive deep enough to uncover people’s objections.

Much resistance to change can be avoided if effective change management is applied on the project from the very beginning. As we discussed last week, resistance is the normal human reaction in times of change. Yet, the bright side of the story is that good change management can mitigate much of this resistance. 

Remember - change management is not just a tool for managing resistance when it occurs; it is most effective as a tool for activating and engaging employees in a change. The moral here is: if you do change management right the first time, you can prevent much of the resistance from ever occurring.

Four golden rules

Consider the following change management activities: (1) Utilize a structured change management approach from the initiation of the project, (2) Engage senior leaders as active and visible sponsors of the change, (3) Recruit the support of management, including middle managers and frontline supervisors, as advocates of the change, (4) Communicate the need for change, the impact on employees and the benefits to the employee (answering “What’s in it for me?”)

These tactics, all of which are part of a structured change management approach, directly address some of the main sources of resistance and can actually prevent resistance from happening if they happen early in the project lifecycle.

1. Expect resistance to change

First of all, do not be surprised by resistance. Even if the solution a project presents is a wonderful improvement to a problem that has been plaguing your employees, there will still be resistance to change. Fear of moving into an unknown future state creates anxiety and stress, even if the current state is painful. Project teams and change management teams should work to address resistance and mitigate it but they should never be surprised by it.

2. Formally manage resistance to change

Managing resistance to change should not be solely a reactive tactic for change management practitioners. That is not advisable and could lead to severe issues. There are many proactive steps that can be used to address and mitigate resistance that should be part of the change management approach on a project.

Resistance is addressed in three phases

Phase 1: Preparing for change

During the creation of the change management strategy, generate anticipated points of resistance and special tactics to manage them based on readiness assessments.  

Phase 2: Managing change

The resistance management plan is one of the five change management plans you create in this phase, along with the communication plan, sponsorship roadmap, coaching plan and training plan. These change management plans all focus on moving individuals through their own change process and addressing the likely barriers for making the change successful. The resistance management plan provides specific action steps for understanding and addressing resistance.

Phase 3: Reinforcing change

In the final phase of the process, you collect feedback to understand employee adoption and compliance with the new workflows and processes prescribed by the change. Evaluating this feedback allows you to identify gaps and manage the resistance that may still be occurring.

Formally addressing resistance ensures that it is understood and dealt with throughout the lifecycle of the project. It moves managing resistance to change from simply a reactive mechanism to a proactive and ultimately more effective tool for mobilizing support and addressing objections.

3. Identify the root causes of resistance to change

Managing resistance is ineffective when it simply focuses on the symptoms. The symptoms of resistance are observable and often overt, such as complaining, not attending key meetings, not providing requested information or resources or simply not adopting a change to process or behaviour. While they are more evident, focusing on these symptoms will not yield results. To be effective at managing resistance, you must look deeper into what is ultimately causing the resistance. Effective resistance management requires identification of the root causes of resistance - understanding why someone is resistant, not simply how that resistance is manifesting itself.

The root causes maybe – (1) Lack of awareness of why the change was being made, (2) Impact on current job role, (3) Organisation’s past performance with change, (4) Lack of visible support and commitment from managers, (5) Fear of job loss.

With the knowledge of these primary root causes, change management teams can adequately prepare a compelling case for the need for change that is communicated by senior leaders in the organisation. This simple activity targets the top cause for resistance (lack of awareness) and can ultimately prevent much of the resistance a project experiences. 

A final note on resistance to change: resistance is ultimately an individual phenomenon. While research and analysis can identify broadly the root causes for resistance, it is important to ultimately address resistance by individuals at the individual level. The best way to identify the root cause of resistance is through a personal conversation between a resistant employee and their supervisor, which leads us to the final tip for managing resistance.

4. Engage the ‘right’ resistance managers

The ‘right’ resistance managers in an organisation are its senior leaders and senior managers. The change management team is not an effective resistance group. Project team members, human resources or organisation development specialists, are not effective resistance managers either. Ultimately, it takes action by leadership in an organisation to manage resistance.

Senior leaders

At a high level, senior leaders can help mitigate resistance by making a compelling case for the need for change and by demonstrating their commitment to a change. Employees look to and listen to senior leaders when they are deciding if a change is important and they will judge what they hear and what they see from this group. If senior leaders are not committed to a change or waver in their support, employees will judge the change as unimportant and resist the change.

Senior managers 

Senior managers are the other key group in terms of managing resistance. They are the closest to the frontline employees who ultimately adopt a change. If they are neutral to or resistant to a change, chances are that their employees will follow suit. However, if they are openly supportive of and advocating for a particular change, these behaviours will also show up in how employees react to the change. 

Historical data shows two key roles of senior managers in times of change, which are directly connected to managing resistance to change: demonstrating support for the change. Remember, though, you must address resistance from middle-level managers first before asking them to manage resistance.

The change management team or resource can do much of the leg work in understanding and addressing resistance but the face of resistance management to the organisation is ultimately senior leaders and senior managers. The change management resource can help to enable the ‘right’ resistance managers by providing data about where resistance is coming from, likely root causes of resistance, potential tactics for addressing resistance and tools to identify and manage resistance, but the ‘right’ resistance managers must take action to address objections and move employees forward in the change process.

(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired corporate director counting three decades of senior management experience. He is now an independent consultant and a freelance journalist. He may be contacted on 

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