Leadership involves introducing change, but what is a leader to do when faced with ubiquitous resistance?
Resistance to change manifests itself in many ways, from foot-dragging and inertia to petty sabotage to outright rebellions.
The best tool for leaders of change is an understanding of the predictable, universal sources of resistance. Once the source has been identified, the resistance is much easier to tackle. The following are the ten most common sources of resitance:
1. Loss of control. Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel that they’ve lost control over their territory. Sense of self-determination is often the first thing to go when faced with a potential change. Smart leaders leave room for those affected by change to make choices. They invite others into the planning, giving them ownership.
2. Excess uncertainty. If change feels like walking off a cliff blindfolded, then people will reject it. Many would rather remain mired in misery than head towards an unknown. As the saying goes, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” Overcoming inertia requires a sense of safety as well as an inspiring vision. Leaders need to create certainty of process with clear, simple steps and timetables.
3. Surprise, surprise! Decisions imposed on people suddenly are generally resisted. It’s always easier to say no than to say yes. Leaders should avoid the temptation to craft changes in secret and then announce them all at once. It’s better to plant seeds — that is, to sprinkle hints of what might be coming and seek input.
4. Everything seems different. We are creatures of habit. Routines become automatic, but change jolts us into consciousness, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. Too many differences can be distracting or confusing. Leaders should try to minimize the number of unrelated differences introduced by a central change. Wherever possible, keep things familiar. Remain focused on the important things; avoid change for the sake of change.
5. Loss of face. By definition, change is a departure from the past. Those people associated with the last version of something — the version that didn’t work, or the one that’s being superseded — are likely to be defensive about it. When change involves a big shift of strategic direction, the people responsible for the previous direction will likely dread others thinking that they must have been wrong. Leaders can help people maintain dignity by celebrating elements of the past that are worth honoring and making it clear that the world has changed.
6. Concerns about competence. Can I do it? Change is resisted when it makes people feel stupid. They might express skepticism about whether the new software version will work or whether digital journalism is really an improvement, but down deep, they are worried that their skills will become obsolete. Leaders should over-invest in structural reassurance by providing abundant information, education, training, mentors, and support systems. A period of overlap, running two systems simultaneously, helps ease transitions.
7. More work. This is a universal challenge. Change is indeed more work. Those closest to the change in terms of designing and testing it are often overloaded, in part because of the inevitable unanticipated glitches in the middle of change. Leaders should acknowledge the hard work of change by allowing some people to focus exclusively on it or giving participants extra perqs (meals? valet parking? massages?). They should reward and recognize participants — and their families, too, who often make unseen sacrifices.
8. Ripple effects. Like a pebble that’s been tossed into a pond, change creates ripples. The ripples disrupt other departments, important customers, and people well outside the venture or neighborhood. These people may start to push back and rebel against changes they had nothing to do with. Leaders should enlarge the circle of stakeholders. They must consider all affected parties, however distant, and work with them to minimize disruption.
9. Past resentment. The ghosts of the past are always lying in wait to haunt us. As long as everything is in a steady state, they remain out of sight. But the minute you need cooperation for something new or different, the ghosts spring into action. Old wounds reopen, historic resentments are remembered. Leaders should consider making gestures to heal the past before sailing into the future.
10. A real threat. Now we get to true pain and politics. Change is resisted because it can hurt. When new technologies displace old ones, jobs can be lost; prices can be cut; investments can be wiped out. The best thing leaders can do when the changes they seek pose a significant threat is to be honest, transparent, fast, and fair. For example, one big layoff with strong transition assistance is better than successive waves of cuts.
Although leaders can’t always make people feel comfortable with change, they can minimize discomfort. Diagnosing the sources of resistance is the first step towards good solutions. And feedback from resistors can be helpful in improving the process of accepting change.