How to handle resistance to change

The prospect of change can create nervousness and uncertainty among employees. That's why resistance is usually a common accompaniment to corporate restructuring.

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Kasper Urth

Kasper Urth

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How to handle resistance to change

The prospect of change can create nervousness and uncertainty among employees. That’s why resistance is usually a common accompaniment to corporate restructuring.

However, resistance to change hides essential insights that you, as a leader, can use to mobilise your employees.

When a company undergoes a significant restructuring, uncertainty among employees often leads to a reluctance to change.

Suppose you, as a leader, understand how to use resistance constructively by understanding why it arises and how you can use it to understand the individual employee’s ability to change. In that case, you can make the change succeed.

Read on to find out how to turn resistance around and empower your employees to take responsibility for making change happen.

Resistance is a natural reaction to change

When a company faces a change process, many leaders experience employee resistance.

Many change approaches assume that resistance to change must be broken down or overcome to get people to change. But this is no longer possible.

Instead, leaders should focus more on using resistance constructively to understand why it occurs and how it can engage employees in making the change successful.

The change doesn’t necessarily have to result in something suitable for every employee, but it should make sense to everyone why the change is happening.

Understand what drives resistance

When top management shares their vision for restructuring in the company, the intention is usually that the vision itself will mobilise employees to drive the change.

The problem with this is that the organisation’s employees are often driven by two specific factors: resistance to loss and uncertainty about their gain.

1) Reluctance to lose what I have

In most change processes, there are four main phases that deal with planning and managing the change. Each phase presents different challenges and opportunities:

People are willing to go much further to keep something they feel they have than to get something they may only be able to get.

Threats to one’s livelihood, self-understanding, social connection and identity contain high resistance energy. That’s why anxiety is a natural companion in any change process.

It must be clear to employees what they stand to lose by not being an active part of the process.

2) Doubt about meaning and relevance to me

The amount of information available today is overwhelming, and it has become an art for both professional and academic employees to sort through it.

This development has helped create a movement towards seeking out what is relevant to us. In most changes, there will be a big difference between what top management and frontline staff find relevant.

If the employee is unsure of the relevance of the change, the worst-case scenario is that the employee disconnects from the change process altogether.

Change communication must, therefore, make it clear why the change is relevant to the company – and, if possible, to the individual employee.

Meet resistance head on

While it’s tempting to initiate change by threatening that “if we don’t succeed with this change, we’ll have to close down, and everyone will be out of a job”, we certainly don’t recommend it. The fear of change should always be addressed constructively.

Clarify the benefits

In your change management, it should be made clear to the employees what opportunities they have to contribute to moving forward, in this way mobilising maximum change energy.

If done correctly, you can also avoid change participants using their anxiety energy to share their concerns, resulting in decreased productivity, increased stress, and lost momentum.

Clarify the “why”

In addition, as a leader, you also need to be able to answer questions like “Why and how does this relate to our purpose and everything else we’re doing?”.

To create relevance for different leaders and employees, you need to be able to answer the question: “What good does the change do?”.

You should also be able to answer why the change is necessary for the following:

  • Society
  • Your customers or service users
  • Your company, shareholders, foundation, or owners
  • Your team, specific employee groups or culture
  • The individual employee
  • Yourself

Mobilise employees in change

When a company needs to change, leaders often need to mobilise the employees to drive the change.

It is important to manage resistance to change appropriately and to distinguish between professional resistance and human resistance:

  • Professional resistance: Professional resistance to change occurs when employees see that the change is moving in a non-value-creating direction from a professional and business point of view.

As a leader, you must be able to use professional resistance constructively and mobilise employees to be active participants in change.

  • Human resistance: Human resistance occurs on a more psychological level. When humans are asked to change, we typically find fault with the new thing, using excuses such as being too busy or only doing what’s necessary.

In both cases, the change participant experiences the current state of stress as the sum of all the influences that require energy from them now.

Therefore, it is rarely a case of resistance to change but rather a lack of capacity to handle the sum of stresses – and a change will, all things being equal, be more stressful than continuing with “business as usual”.

Use resistance to change as building blocks

As a leader, you can use immediate resistance as building blocks and actively work with them in the change.

You also need to be able to distinguish between professional and human resistance.

Professional resistance can be both accurate and relevant. Personal resistance is more about the individual employee’s natural reaction to change, which can be uncomfortable and challenging.

Therefore, always remember that resistance is energy. It is not to be overcome, and those who express concern (and thus resistance) are often the ones with the insight to make the change succeed.

Therefore, when leading change, it’s far more valuable to make them co-responsible for the success of the change than to shut them down.

Want to read more about change management?

People & Performance has been working with change management for over 15 years and in this guide we provide a review of what lies behind the concept and answer some of the most relevant questions about change management.

We are each on the ground at both Danish and international companies, training their leaders to manage change.


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