Fear, Control, and Change Resistance

Change resistance - Push-Pull

Views on change are as diverse as the people who are the change leaders or the “changees.”

The need for change can range from a mere “tweak” to a fundamental transformation of the current status quo.

Change leaders can sound the battle cry for urgency or strive to balance changes with some level of consistency.

The “changees” (or those who are being asked to change) can wholeheartedly embrace the new reality or dig in their heels by undermining and resisting anything remotely related to the change.

No matter what the reasons for the change or our role in making those changes, I’ve found that people have a paradoxical view on change:  they may say that they aren’t afraid to change, yet their initial responses tend to resist the recommended actions that are necessary to create that change.

Interestingly since the ability to change is now a highly valued characteristic in employees, I haven’t met anyone currently in the workforce who says that they don’t “like” change.  Across the board, everyone says that they are not afraid to change.

Yet change resistance continues to plague nearly every change initiative that is launched.

For example, a young manager was asked to streamline the process for training employees.  Taking the current materials and workbooks as a starting point, he was excited and confident that he could make a difference – his enthusiasm and commitment to the project were tangible.

But when a suggestion was made to consider foregoing printed materials in lieu of providing the information on thumb drives to employees and changing the training from onsite to online and making it “on demand” rather than on a set day and time, a huge “caution” flag was waved.  Why?

  • Perhaps he was afraid to change things too much.
  • Perhaps he was unsure of his ability to successfully coordinate activities with the IT department.
  • Perhaps he was concerned about a potentially larger workload as a result.
  • Or perhaps he just didn’t want to.

But is this an example of a deep rooted resistance to change – or is this a “normal” human reaction to a suggestion that was previously completely off his radar?

Expect So-Called “Change Resistance”

I believe that pushing back when asked to change is a completely normal reaction that should be anticipated by both change leaders and “changees.”  This is regardless of the scope of the desired changes.

Having researched the change phenomenon for over 15 years, I’ve discovered that the greatest level of change resistance tends to result from fear and a perceived loss of control.  When we are initially afraid of a proposed change, the fear manifested as “change resistance” is closely related to our need to feel a sense of control over ourselves and our surroundings.  This control is perceived to be threatened when asked to change.

In the previous example, the young manager was new to the organization and unaware of the politics within the culture.  He felt that it was better to tread lightly and not radically change things too much, rather than ‘go for it’ and risk being penalized or reprimanded.  Was his initial pushback really a classic case of change resistance?

When employees push back in response to requests to change, the leaders of the initiative tend to view this initial reserve as a major obstacle to creating the desired changes.  In fact, many change consultants advise companies to make sure that “the right people are on the bus” – but the result can be the loss of many previously high value employees who might have initially questioned the wisdom, action plan, or timeline of the proposed changes.

These downsizings send a loud and clear message to the surviving employees:  “Don’t question, don’t resist, just do it – even if you see challenges that we might not have considered.”

Puleo’s Pointers:  How to Recognize the Interplay Between Fear, Control, and Change Resistance    

Change resistance will always occur in varying degrees when an organization is attempting to change.  I would add that change resistance also occurs when an individual is trying to make changes in his or her life.  Successful change requires “letting go” and moving forward to an as yet unknown future.

No wonder it’s scary.

By recognizing what we are afraid of losing, it is much easier to understand why we resist the changes by attempts to control our environments.  Usually this is through keeping things the same as much and for as long as possible.  Instead of jumping into the pool, we first want to check the depth of the water, stick our toe in to feel the temperature, then (after our fears are allayed) jump in and (hopefully) enjoy the swim.

Although simplistic, this swimming pool analogy represents the employee reactions in many corporate change initiatives.

  • Advice to Change Leaders:  Always include the employees who are expected to implement the change initiative in the preliminary conversations relating to the need for change as well as the potential paths that can be taken to create that change.  This not only assuages employees’ fears of the unknown, but their input gives them a sense of control about the potential outcomes.
  • Advice to “Changees”:  When asked to change, stop to take a reading of your initial reaction.  Are you afraid?  If so, what specifically is so frightening about these changes?  Determine what you can control – even if it is only your perception and reaction to the change initiative.  No matter what the circumstance, the only thing that we ultimately control is how we respond to it.  This understanding is incredibly powerful in minimizing our fears and reminding us that we still have a choice to control our own lives. Change is the only way that both organizations and people can move forward.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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