“One of the most baffling and recalcitrant of the problems which business executives face is employee resistance to change.”
This is from a 1969 article in the Harvard Business Review – “How to Deal With Resistance to Change.”
For decades, resistance to change has been “baffling” leaders and is seen as the primary obstacle in the way of change.
At LaMarsh Global, we view it differently. There is a risk associated with your employees opting out of a change, but this risk can be transformed into opportunities. Not only does this improve the chance of a successful change effort, but it empowers individuals that see a change as detrimental.
For many leaders and managers, the challenge of change doesn’t come from implementing the change itself but rather from employees opting out of the change. These responses of employees can include:
- Reduced productivity.
- Quitting, or requesting a transfer.
- Conflict and interpersonal challenges.
- Pointing out why the change won’t work instead of celebrating its benefits.
- “I don’t see the point of changing.”
- “I like the way things are.”
- “I am too busy to go through the change.”
- “That last change didn’t go well.”
- “Will my job change?”
- “Is that the best change for us?”
- Apathy or indifference.
- Defensiveness or controlling behavior.
- Pessimism or negativity.
- Anxiety, fear or sadness.
- Reduced probability of success.
- Reduced collaboration.
- Weakened benefits of change.
- Extending timeline of implementation.
- Impeding future changes.
Identifying the potential risks of a change is the first step to change management implementation. And more importantly, identifying potential risks enables change leaders to create opportunities for enthusiastic adoption.
Here are the risks of your employees opting out of a change and how to turn the risks into opportunities. To understand these risks, let’s explore the psychology of change.
Psychology of change
Death is among the most immense changes that we experience.
The grief and change process experienced by individuals who experienced the death of an individual in their family or community was the focus of the 1969 book On Death and Dying. This book, by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, created the foundation for research on the stages of change that we experience through grief.
On the heels of World War II, Dr. Kubler-Ross created a step-by-step process for the emotional response to change. A novel concept at the time, the five steps she proposed are now the standard primer on the psychology of change.
The change process consists of five parts:
- Shock and denial (existing state).
- Frustration (existing state is disrupted).
- Depression (existing state is completely disrupted – options now are back to previous state or new state).
- Experiment (path to new state).
- Decision (new state).
The psychology of change is the first step to understanding how unpredictable externalities can impact individuals. A change journey has two options: return to the previous state or carry on to the new state. Both destinations have positive and negative outcomes for individuals, so the path is far from straightforward and defined.
Managed Change™ provides the tactics to identify the outcomes that result from remaining in the current state and transitioning to the new state as well as the impacts of going through that transition. Depending on the potential outcomes, employees have the potential to be hesitant or even defiant.
And these reactions may contribute to an employee opting out of a change.
Why employees opt out
One of the most dangerous obstacles to a successful change is employees not buying in – or even opting out.
This reaction is typically viewed as resistance, but that terminology is a false assumption that employees are actively working against a change. More often, employees lack a clear job description, or they are completely focused on their daily tasks that the goals of a change effort are worthy but their to-do list is already full.
Here are the common reasons that employees opt out of a change.
Lack of accountability
Most leaders are dedicated to their deliverables, but few are focused on their people. There is accountability to complete tasks or projects, but there is limited accountability to follow up to change efforts.
One of the most common shortfalls is the absence of active leadership throughout the lifecycle of a change. This can limit accountability and reduces motivation to carry out and complete the change effort.
Without clear job descriptions, employees are responding to multiple requests and are responsible for an incredible amount of work. They are pulled in from varying directions and have to respond to the scheduled and unscheduled issues that arise daily.
Changes can improve their job, but the daily pressures come first. Additional concerns are quickly viewed as barriers to daily work.
No connection to the change
Even if employees understand the why, what and how of a change, they won’t care if they are not connected to the change. They can choose to opt in, opt out or ignore the change effort.
And if they choose to opt out, they are often immune to the consequences. The organization risks its investment into the change and may inhibit a successful change, but these consequences are also disconnected to the individual.
It makes it seem that the change doesn’t matter.
When the change is not important, it creates risks that impede the change efforts and create barriers to success.
Anticipate the risks
You can identify the challenges, risks and opportunities that may occur during a transition well before the change begins.
Struggle may be present at every stage of a change
Just as the grief process moves from an existing state through change into the desired state, the change process also follows that flow. Struggle may be present at any (or all) of the three stages.
Here are some comments that may indicate resistance to a change:
As a risk to the acceptance of change, employees opting out can be anticipated and managed. It is not the sign of poor change management, but rather it is an opportunity to empower employees.
Individual actions and behaviors
As individuals proceed through the change process, they may respond with any number of the following actions, emotions or behaviors.
The presence of these behaviors is not proof of resistance but may be evidence of the potential for risks of resistance.
Risks to organizations
When resistance is present, it can have an impact on a project, team or entire organization. The risks of resistance include:
Resistance prevents smooth transitions out of current states. It creates barriers that impede the progress of a change. And it inhibits creating desired states that are worthy of being achieved.
Evaluate the risks
Change management evaluates the potential risks to prepare for avoidance or mitigation. Managed Change™ is the change management methodology that LaMarsh Global has developed and applied around the world, and it includes processes to collect and evaluate resistance data. Every action plan is shaped around the risks that are identified and then adapted as new data is reviewed.
Managed Change™ provides the framework for a comprehensive evaluation of resistance data. But to start the analysis, here are three “desktop” methods to begin evaluating the risks.
“Walk in their shoes”
Consider the change process: current state, change state, desired state. What will be the priorities, concerns and interests of the individuals impacted by the change at every state? This type of brainstorming can be done at a management or executive level, or among the team responsible for the change.
Brainstorming is a good start, but true understanding requires a conversation. Ask your people what their thoughts are about the change.
Consider common risks
We have witnessed thousands of changes around the world, and most risks are common and universal. Download our checklist to identify common pitfalls of every state of a change.
You can anticipate risks. Download the checklist of the most common reasons people resist change.
Transform risk into opportunities
Recall the three key reasons that individuals opt out of a change:
- Lack of accountability
- Daily pressures
- No connection to the change
We can reduce risk with a plan that considers improving accountability, prioritizing work and creating connections between the people of an organization and the goals.
Every risk you are aware of can be transformed into an opportunity.
Managed Change™ doesn’t ignore risks – it includes tools to analyze organizational data and identify potential risks. It highlights the risks so you can take the next steps to create opportunities.