Why Resistance to Change Can Be Good

By Heather Campbell

“Why aren’t the messages working? Why aren’t people accepting these changes?”

If your organisation has ever tried to push through a major change, you’ve probably heard those words — or their equivalent — from your CEO. They’re impatient to see the change they’ve worked so hard to bring about actually happen, and balk at any sign that employees are resistant.

Try explaining to them that encountering resistance to change can actually be a good sign…

While that might sound completely counter-intuitive, resistance is actually the first step in getting change implemented.

You see, as long as people don’t really believe that they need to change, they won’t react emotionally. Employees putting up resistance marks the moment they’ve started to engage with the change, accepting that it really is going to happen.

And that’s something that tends to get misinterpreted by management. One of the key problems is that by the time a change is announced, leaders (and HR) will have been working and dwelling on it behind the scenes for many months. They had a long period of time to get used to the changes before they were announced. By the time the changes are made public, they expect staff to be at the same emotional point as they are, and implement the changes fast.

Of course, that isn’t realistic.

In his classic book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, William Bridges points out that change can be carried out very quickly, but ‘transition’ — the psychological process of adapting to change — always takes time.

The result is often that HR gets in the neck from all sides.

On the one hand you have disgruntled employees blaming you for changes they don’t like, and on the other you get your CEO and other directors breathing down your neck for hard evidence that the changes are being implemented, and quickly.

Often, by that stage, the CEO is already off planning a different project. At the very time HR needs them to be involved, providing leadership and moral support in helping the changes to go through, they may feel their job is done.

So how do you, in HR, manage these competing pressures?

Trying to manage leaders’ expectations about how quickly change can be implemented would be ideal if it were possible, but usually is another of those tall orders.

But there is something HR can do here.

We need to help leaders to summon up the courage to announce planned changes sooner. I know from experience that leaders will nearly always wait too long before sharing a change with staff. They want all the details ironed out, and the change ready to go, before they unveil it.

Yet the sooner people learn about the change, the sooner they can start adapting to it in their own minds — and the sooner it will be implemented.

In fact, there are significant benefits in getting employees involved before the change is even finalised — actually getting them involved in shaping the change.

I’ll tell you more about that in my next blog post… watch this space!

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