Overcoming Resistance to Change in Your Organization

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By John C. Bruckman, Ph.D.

A generation has grown up since the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow wrote that, until this century, social change was "so slow that it would pass unnoticed in one person's lifetime. That is no longer so. The rate of change has increased so much that our imagination can't keep up. Two of the most critical elements of leadership are the introduction and management of change. Many leaders have little or no training in the process. Most organizations rise or fall based on how well they manage the introduction of change and the control of uninvited changes in their environment.

Leaders must fully understand the change process to move their countries or organizations successfully, through the turmoil of today's economic environment, into the future. Many countries or corporations faced with a lack of, or diminishing resources, find that this exerts increasing pressure on their leadership to proactively respond to planned and unplanned changes. A primary determinate of the future success of an organization is the leadership's ability to assimilate change, then formulate and articulate a clear vision, accompanied by implementation of succinct strategic goals and objectives.

A rogue element has been introduced to the challenge of change management: in addition to facing more and faster changes, leaders are often confronted with too many new choices. Their skills for handling more and faster changes don't necessarily serve them well when dealing with unprecedented changes.

Lacking training or knowledge, the great majority of leaders come to rely on instinct and experience, rather than a full understanding of the change process. Some out of fear of change resist the inevitable transformation of their organization. This tends to put the organization at risk when facing unanticipated as well as planned change. Garfield argued in his book, Peak Performers: "The peak performers in our study do not regard change as something to resist, or even to understand fully. They see it, rather, as a source of opportunity they can guide. The key difference here is between people being change managers or change resisters."

Change is the primary cause of personal and organizational stress. There is a direct relation to the amount of change in an organization and physiological changes in the people who work there. The more changes introduced into a shorter period of time, the more stress people and the organization, as whole, experience.

Organizational stressors which surface during a major change process have been found to cause chronic health conditions in people, and negatively affect perceived work effectiveness, satisfactions, and growth. Among these stressors are:

  • Unilateral announcements of major decisions and changes
  • Authoritarian, workaholic, competitive norms
  • Transfers and new work assignments
  • Major reorganization or change in position
  • New bosses, employees, co-workers
  • Changes in work load or schedule
  • Changes of procedure, technology
  • Changes in status, recognition, appreciation
  • Feedback only when performance is unsatisfactory
  • Unclear standards and responsibilities
  • Job overload
  • Task interruption
  • Lack of participation in decision making process
  • Lack of supportive relationships

During the wave of mergers and acquisitions that occurred in the 90's and is now reoccurring, merger activity was observed to afflict individuals with uncertainty, and loss of identity because of job loss, demotions or transfers. Changes in compensation and benefits accompanying a merger also brought changes in perceived power, status and prestige. There was strife at the leadership level as new rules and regulations were formed, bringing the need for new evaluation criteria, changes in reporting relationships, and in many cases, new employees and co-workers to be assimilated into the organization.

Stressors generated by changes during mergers had an impact that affected people, organizations and society as a whole. People experienced physiological changes such as insomnia, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal difficulties; and/or psychological difficulties such as depression, fear of the unknown, loss of self-confidence. For some, marital and family strife grew out of stressors experienced at work. On an organizational level, these stressors tended to derail the primary focus of the organization, and productivity declined. As a group or society, workers experienced lowered morale, which led to increased disloyalty, increased turnover, higher absenteeism, increased stealing, and sabotage.


From observation of the change processes in a number of organizations, lessons in positive change management have emerged. To be a change manager, not a change resister, successful leaders commit to being perpetual learners. They learn the ways of their organizations and continue to explore new ideas.

Work With the Group

A senior manager has to work with the "natural ingredients" at hand, which requires careful study of the history of the group, and gives many clues to members' behavior. What has formed them in the past? How have they evolved and matured? A clear understanding of "what drives the group" must be achieved, before a leader can introduce new elements into the mix. Ignorance of or purposely ignoring the natural order of a group may doom a change strategy to failure.

Confront Fear of Change

Asking people to make significant behavioral changes is the most frightening request one can make of them. Stress levels in organizations and people are directly linked to the level of change experienced. Underestimating their fear response and potential resistance is the most consistent mistake made by leaders when introducing change.

Consider the Group's Perspective

When attempting to gain a group's support for needed change, the greatest leverage lies in discovering what self-interest they have in maintaining the status quo and what self-interest they have in making changes. A leader must walk in their shoes and appeal to their self-interest, if it supports the overall organizational plan and does not create new problems. If senior management approaches the group or organization from the members' perspectives and understands what they have to lose, they will be able to design interventions that don't immediately trigger individual defense mechanisms.

Build Trust

If the doors to change are not open, then interventions must concentrate on teambuilding, trust building, and open/honest communications, prior to the introduction of change. If the senior manager can lower the work group's fear levels, he/she can open the doors to change. If the doors to change are open, or even partially open, then the strategy should concentrate on methodologies that will keep them open. Authentic participation in the change process, with many opportunities to raise issues of concern, will help keep a group open to the possibility of significant change.

Avoid Manipulating the Workgroup

The worst change strategy is for a leader to pretend to listen to the work group and consider their concerns, having already decided what is appropriate in advance. This type of approach will backfire, because people will quickly perceive that they are being manipulated and conclude that the process is dishonest.

Another strategy that leads to failure is to only involve the work force in negative changes. If the leadership of an organization jealously guards the decision-making prerogatives of the organization during good times, it can't expect a very positive reaction when it turns around and says: "We have to cut medical benefit costs by 45%," or "We have to cut 20% of the work force and we want you to help us decide who should go!" Employees will get involved in these types of "invited" change processes out of self-preservation, but this approach does not build the foundation of trust needed for productive future change.

Be Willing to Compromise

If senior management focuses on predetermined outcomes and displays unwillingness to compromise, the possibility of work group support is minimized. Involved employees will suggest changes that greatly improve the original plan, because the people most heavily affected by a plan will correct its obvious defects. Employees are much more likely to support a new set of ideas which they have had a key role in shaping. When a senior manager approaches the group or organization from the members' perspective, he or she will be able to design interventions that don't immediately trigger defense mechanisms.

Allow Group Ownership

Ownership of the proposal for change is instrumental to a successful change process. If the ideas are generated by the leader, then the leader should construct a process that allows the group members to take and make the ideas their own.

Actions vs. Words

People trust their leaders' actions, not their words. If words and actions are consistent, then a manager's credibility will be high. The staff will take their cues from the behaviors of senior staff members, despite all declarations of intent. Senior managers must follow up on the change process. Most employees quickly "burn out" on changes that are announced on a regular basis, but are not consistently reinforced over a period of time. One well-researched change process that is properly implemented with employee support is worth more than numerous new programs, poorly prepared and presented in the same time period. The fanfare and energy that upper management puts into new projects quickly becomes the brunt of derision and double-faced behaviors by employees wanting to signal that they are "on board" with the new set of ideas, but privately complain about the "latest waste of energy."

Reward New Behaviors Early

A senior manager cannot wait for examples of completely changed behavior to surface before rewarding the new behavior. Managers spend much more energy catching employees doing something wrong, than recognizing what employees do right. Reinforce any significant movement in the right direction.

Financial Rewards Rarely Reinforce Behavioral Change

A false assumption held by many leaders is that the only effective way to reward or motivate their staff is by materialistic rewards. Most financial rewards are given on a yearly basis and have little or no impact on daily behavior.

Manage the Myths and Realities

During each stage of this process, senior management needs to manage the myths and realities of the organization. Most leaders believe that what they know and believe are the facts and therefore attention should be paid to their beliefs. They behave as if most other sources of information are irrelevant. Employees on the other hand will pay equal or greater attention to myths, rather than organizational realities, regardless of where they got the information. The myths are the rumors that flow rapidly through an organization and gain greater validity in employee's eyes as they are retold by greater numbers of people. Leaders must understand that myths become realities if they are believed and acted upon.

Integrity - The Most Important Variable

The most critical variable in the change process is a leader's personal integrity: Does the work group have good reason to trust the leader? Do the leader's actions and words match? Is he/she sensitive to work group needs? Does he/she treat group members as he/she would like to be treated? Does the leader communicate with the work group in an open and honest manner?


Senior management must fully understand how change works in order to lead their organizations successfully into the future. The introduction and management of change are two of the most critical elements of leadership for the future. Many leaders, lacking knowledge or training, fall back upon instinct and past experience. Some oppose inevitable changes required by their organizations and become "change resistors" instead of "change managers." In addition to facing more and faster changes, leaders are often confronted with too many new choices.

The successful change manager is one who is committed to being a perpetual learner. Myths, realities, and historical cultures need to be acknowledged and managed toward a new set of priorities and values. Leaders who are change managers address and reduce the fear of change that naturally exists in the work group. They build trust and confidence rather than attempting to manipulate the work group.

Change managers are willing to compromise and lead the consensus decision-making process toward a culture that rewards new behaviors. The work group is allowed to take ownership of change and make it their own rather than ownership remaining with the initiator. Today's workforce trusts its leaders' actions more than it trusts their words, which places new behavioral demands on the leaders to act in parallel with their pronouncements. Change managers follow up and reinforce required changes, rewarding new behaviors early in the process, thus shaping future behaviors. Leadership integrity is one of the important variables in successful completion of the process.

Note: Dr. John C. Bruckman is Managing Director of the Change Management Group, based in California. During the last thirty-three years, Dr. Bruckman has consulted with over 300 organizations in the United States, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. For further information: log on http://www.changemanagementgroup.com/ or contact Dr. Bruckman directly at [email protected]

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