Why employees resist to change and how to turn them into advocates

Change doesn’t happen if you don’t understand first why people resist change.  Yet, many great change initiatives fail because leaders struggle to understand the causes of internal resistance and its impact on implementation.  Here’s the good news. Resistance can be dealt with if you know what causes it.

Why resistance is just a step in the journey

As leaders, we first need to understand that resistance is normal.  Sometimes, we believe that people resist because they don’t understand the need for change – “they don’t get it”. This is why leaders should understand first why people resist.  Let’s see how change works. The change curve model by Kubler-Ross identifies 6 phases during change:
  • Neutral – People don’t know much about the change you want to drive. So they sit and wait until they know more 
  • Initial Excitement – People have a high-level idea about the change and they’re positive and optimistic about the change
  • Denial – People start to “feel” the change and the potential impact on their job or career. They don’t participate much in the program as well as in meetings
  • Resistance – People don’t accept the change. They challenge every action, they speak badly about the change with others, and they don’t take action
  • Valley of Despair – People are frustrated, sad, and stressed about the change. They freeze and are concerned about what is going to happen to them
  • Exploration – People start to feel a bit more confident about the change and see some initial results that look positive and promising
  • Commitment – People are now optimistic, committed to implementing change, and fully on board.
Once you understand these phases, you understand why resistance is just a necessary step in the process. Your goal is to help your people to move from a status of resistance to a status of commitment.

Four reasons why people resist change

People resist change for very different reasons. In my experience, there are four main reasons why people resist: 1.Personality Personality types have a critical role during change. Personality is who we are, often a result of our past, our success or failure, our risk attitude, etc. Normally, we come across four types of personalities:
  • The anxious employee – Often stressed about the change, even before starting
  • The enthusiastic employee – Always positive and happy about a new change
  • The command and control employee – Doesn’t like to be told what to do
  • The reluctant employee – Says no to change no matter what
2.Perception People perceive change differently. We are shaped by the experiences we had in the past, including previous changes (both personal and professional). For example, if people have been negatively affected by the change in the past, they have a low tolerance for another change. Their attitude is often negative.  There are primarily four perceptions at work:
  • Positive people who believe in a positive outcome
  • Negative people who believe in a negative outcome
  • Positive people but reluctant to change in this specific situation
  • Negative people who accept change for compliance, not because they believe in it
3.Power Power, expressed in the form of status, ego, and job title, has an important impact on change. Employees who have high power tend to either facilitate and accelerate change or block it. In the latter scenario, the main reason is normally self-preservation. They need to protect themselves so they push back against change because they might feel threatened. Unfortunately, those who have high power are often key stakeholders so it’s very important to understand how to influence them during the process. 4.Program In my personal experience, many change initiatives fail for other reasons too. One of those, it’s related to the quality, planning, and execution of the change program. One of the typical signs is seeing employees challenge both change leaders and agents. They don’t participate, disregard information and instructions, and disagree with all decisions.

Key mistakes leaders do during change

Executing change poorly is often the reason why 70% of change initiatives fail. Here’s why:
  • Poor communication. Leaders don’t communicate consistently and clearly the vision for change internally. As a result, employees get confused and disengaged
  • Lack of clear roles and responsibilities. People feel lost, frustrated, and stressed. This is particularly evident during medium-large change projects
  • No psychological safety in the organization. In this scenario, people tend to follow the initiative through compliance, and not through participation. They don’t speak up or share even constructive criticism
  • Lack of feedback loop. Feedback is necessary during execution. Every step you take must be discussed with key stakeholders. You need a lot of back and forth to test and try what works and what doesn’t.
In other words, leaders must create an environment and the conditions for people to participate, discuss, share and give feedback 

Four strategies to turn resistance into commitment

1.Education Educating employees is always a great strategy. In most change initiatives, there are new skills to be learned. In this digital area, change is often related to new technologies. This is why many organizations have been working hard to help employees learn new digital skills.  However, although it might seem less obvious, learning new skills such as communication, influence, and people management are very critical too to driving change across the entire organization. 2.Participation and involvement When people participate actively in the change initiative, they tend to resist less.  They move faster from a status of resistance to a status of commitment. As a result, they drive change more effectively and enthusiastically. Participation and involvement also build more trust in the team because people have a higher sense of belonging. 3.Negotiation This strategy is not always effective and it should never replace the first two above. Negotiation works well with key stakeholders who have normally high power. With them, if they don’t embrace change, it might be a good idea to find a common ground and a win-win agreement. At the end of the day, you probably need them on board otherwise change might not happen. 4.Compliance This strategy is your last resort.  When people keep resisting, provided you implemented the other three strategies, you really give them two options: either they align with others or you isolate them. This strategy is often used with line managers. Here’s why. As a change leader, you might have the power and authority to let them agree on following your instructions (which might not happen with senior executives), but also you know that line managers are key during change. They can be the best enabler of change down to the organization or they can be the worst “enemy” who can block change at their level.  Change is not rocket science, but the more you know about resistance, the easier is to overcome it. Listen to the podcast related to this article: https://www.andreapetrone.com/why-employees-resist-to-change-and-how-to-turn-them-into-advocates-podcast/  
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