Resistance to change is usually seen as a major management headache. As a result, a lot of attention has been given to what causes resistance, from innate human dislike of change to low tolerance of uncertainty, and how to overcome it.
But look what happened when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020. Many organizations changed their structures, their working methods, their IT systems, the services they offered, and their products.
This took place within a very short space of time, and mostly without resistance. Normally, these kinds of changes would have taken months to implement. Has COVID-19 altered how we handle change and resistance?
This article examines underlying principles about gaining commitment to change and avoiding the negative side of resistance.
Seeing change through the eyes of attraction
During the pandemic, the usual drawn out change process was short-circuited. This was possible because employees immediately understood the thinking; we want to stay in business.
And in addition, they liked some of the consequences; working from home, keeping everybody safe.
In fact, it’s not about resistance at all. In the late 1990s, two American healthcare management specialists, Paul Plsek and Charles Kilo, argued that what is often called resistance is actually attraction to aspects of the current system.
If you want to change something, find new attractors, or use those that already exist.
They tell the story of a medical secretary who didn’t want to use a new patient booking system. She understood the existing system, which worked well for her. But she didn’t like having to call dozens of patients to reschedule appointments when the doctor had to cancel for some reason. When she saw how the new system would avoid that, she was immediately attracted to it.
More recently, McKinsey describe how the Danish telecomms company, TDC, wanted to change middle management roles to develop a leaner, more agile system. Instead of fixing problems all day, they wanted managers to spend more time on coaching and performance management. But many of them enjoyed their existing role and did not want to change.
However, once they realized that they could adapt the methods on offer as they wanted, and accomplish more, they became more involved than ever. This took time, but it was worth it because the new system worked well.
Questions based on identifying attraction
Following the principles of attraction, these are the kinds of questions you need to be asking:
- Do you know what your people like and dislike about their current working conditions and methods?
- Do you know what they will like and dislike about the new approaches that you are planning to introduce?
- How can you best tailor your change strategy to target what your people will find attractive about your change initiative?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then do some management by walking around and find out.
Resistance is normal and necessary
We tend to think of resistance to change in negative terms: conflict, annoyance, delay, pain. And if resistance isn’t approached effectively, then yes, it can be a pain.
But this perspective encourages an adversarial approach. This isn’t helpful, and can make the problem worse.
Research and experience show that resistance to change is not always damaging. Indeed, it is usually constructive: there is a sound case that resistance to change is desirable, perhaps even necessary.
Resistance to change is valuable for three reasons:
- First, faulty ideas will go ahead if nobody argues against them.
- Second, resistance can help to identify the gaps and flaws in current plans, and lead to improvements.
- Third, if you involve those who are arguing against change in discussing how to do things better, they will be more committed to making it work. They can also help you to identify the attractors that will encourage wider acceptance.
Middle managers in particular often take the blame for being change blockers. This is unfair. There are many examples of middle managers resisting top team plans, so that better solutions can be put in place.
In addition, middle managers often tailor, add to, and adapt top-down directives. They are closer to front line operations, and usually have a better understanding of how things work than distant senior management.
In one case, middle managers in a Nordic insurance company ‘redefined’ senior management proposals to change claims handling procedures. The existing approach was clumsy and costly, and customers found it difficult to use. But a ‘Gang of Four’ middle managers, disagreed with the top team.
They knew that what senior management were proposing would not solve the problem and, if those plans went ahead, the middle managers who were responsible for implementation would get the blame when things went wrong.
So, they decided to implement their own proposals instead. At first sight, what these managers did looks like outright resistance: disobeying and ignoring senior management decisions. Controlling the project staffing by handpicking allies to fill key project roles.
Controlling the information gathering. Questioning the expertise of external consultants. Withholding and selectively distributing information. Rejecting unfavourable decisions, and insisting on a ‘replay’ to reach a different result.
‘Resistance’ in this case was beneficial because it led to a better outcome for the company.
How to use resistance constructively
Based on seeing resistance as necessary – supported by two-way communications – these are the kinds of questions you need to be asking:
- Who is likely to resist the changes that we are thinking about?
- What are their concerns?
- How can we engage them in helping to design both the substance of the changes and the change process?
- Will that engagement be practical given the time and costs involved?
Exceptions to the rules
The pandemic has reminded us that sometimes the pace of change can be an overriding consideration with regard to employee engagement. We have to take into account how important the changes are, the timescale, and the employee responses.
Let’s assume that the changes are highly desirable, but not critical to the business. The timescale is workable. And if we involve people, as we have done before, they will contribute ideas and help us to develop good solutions with which everyone can agree.
If these conditions are in place, then let’s look at the rules of attraction, and engage everyone – including (or especially) the resistors – in the process.
Now let’s assume that the changes are business-critical. The timescale is tight. And as you know from past experience, there’s no way that everyone who is going to be involved will ever be able to agree the changes we need to make.
If these are the conditions in which change is being considered, then some autocratic leadership is required. This is unfashionable. Implementing change in a hurry in the absence of detailed planning leads inevitably to mistakes.
But leadership in a crisis involved ‘no regrets’ decision-making, and errors can be fixed later. A directive style will cost senior management some short-term goodwill as some people will be angry.
But if you need to act quickly in the interests of the business, you can manage the emotional fallout afterward. And by that time, those who resisted the changes may have come to see the benefits.
When the pandemic started, for many organizations change was essential for survival. Time was exceptionally tight. But employees largely welcomed the changes, and may even be reluctant to reverse these once the pandemic has passed.
It is important to take account of the likely support for change, positive and negative, as well as the timescale.
Above all, never assume that you know why people are resisting. Ask, but not in an adversarial way. Where possible, involve resistors as well as supporters.
These are the kinds of approaches you need to be adopting:
- Listen to what is important to those voicing resistance and act on this: what is attractive and valuable about the existing situation?
- Resistance should be treated with respect as something to understand and act upon.
- Work with, not against
Exceptionally, if there is a need for speed, make the changes first, and involve employees if possible in implementation. Learn from mistakes, and modify later as necessary.
Remember: There is never time to do it right. But there is always time to do it again.