Change resistance. It’s the bane of change leaders’ existence…but should it be? Could change resistance actually be a BLESSING?! And if you are the target of an organizational change initiative, should you keep your doubts and concerns to yourself?
These are some of the fundamental challenges facing change leaders and change targets when an organization is attempting massive change.
In talking to change leaders over the years, one of the biggest challenges that I’ve seen is the anger that change leaders feel toward any employee who resists or even questions the veracity of the need for change OR the method of changing OR even the potential outcomes of that change.
A common refrain by change leaders is, “Get the right people on the bus! We only want employees who embrace change – anybody else is a change resistor and we need to get them OFF the bus!”
I remain shocked that a change leader would discount the insights and concerns of employees when you are asking them to fundamentally shift their work processes, assumptions, and routines. As the photo above says, “I don’t think so!”
The Change Resistance Zoo
Change resistance is defined as efforts focused on impeding, redirecting, rejecting, or stopping the change (Coetsee, 1999). It is often thought as being overt…but it can also be very effectively done through covert actions.
Although change resistance is viewed as a “bad thing” that needs to be eliminated from the workplace, employee resistance to proposed organizational changes can also be a very GOOD thing because:
“When resistance does appear,…it should not be thought of as something to overcome…Instead, it can best be thought of as a useful red flag – a signal that something is going wrong.” (Lawrence, 1954)
In general, a certain amount of resistance should be anticipated when an organization demands that its workers change their working behaviors, processes, or even attitudes. But these responses will vary based on their view of the changes being asked of them.
Therefore there is no ONE change resistant response or behavior. What employees will exhibit as resistance will vary greatly. For change leaders and change targets, it’s important to understand these differences.
Based on my research, I’ve developed six attitudes toward change in what I call “The Change Resistance Zoo.” Each type views change somewhat differently, which consequently leads to distinctly different behaviors and responses throughout a change initiative.
The Ostrich. The employee who avoids change at all costs is like the ostrich sticking its head in the sand. Ostriches staunchly deny what is going on in the organization and may even view the current status quo as being “not that bad…really.” Rather than change, Ostriches will often resign from an organization – either when changes are anticipated OR after the change initiative is lost.
What’s Bad About Ostriches: These are the die hard change resistors who dislike any degree of change to the status quo. They are in denial and will do anything to avoid making the change. This is particularly bad for the organization if one of your key employees is an Ostrich.
What’s Good About Ostriches: Even though they dislike changes to their status quo, Ostriches are also smart enough to realize that the changes are going to happen – so it’s better for them (and the company) if they find a more suitable work environment with another employer.
The Mole. The Mole is sneaky about refusing to go along with the changes. Rather than being upfront about their doubts, the Mole goes underground and covertly sabotages the changes. This could be through missed deadlines or by spreading negative gossip about how the change is progressing or what it really means for employees.
What’s Bad About Moles: Moles can sow seeds of discord and fear among not only their immediate coworkers, but throughout the organization. Because their resistant tactics are covert, Moles can be difficult to spot: there’s always a “logical” excuse for a missed deadline and it’s rare to catch them as the source of misinformed or outright malicious gossip.
What’s Good About Moles: Consider the option that the Mole has a good reason for refusing to change. Even though they can be toxic in the workplace, Moles serve as an indication that something has not been considered when planning and implementing the change initiative.
The Tiger. Unlike the covert activities of the Mole, the Tiger is vocal and aggressive in resisting the changes. Tigers will argue with change leaders by challenging their ideas and assumptions about the changes. Their goal is to attack everything related to the change initiative so that it will not proceed.
What’s Bad About Tigers: They are disruptive and combative, which can make other employees uncomfortable – regardless of whether those employees support or disagree with the changes. Unlike Moles, it is easy to spot a Tiger – but it’s harder to deal with them in a rational, calm way.
What’s Good About Tigers: The Tiger will let you know what is a contentious aspect of the change initiative – there’s no guesswork involved. Try to discuss the Tiger’s concerns in private (so that they don’t damage employee morale) and remain calm. There is a good chance that the area of disagreement might be eligible for some sort of compromise that creates a win-win outcome in the proposed changes.
The Dog. The Dog will never directly challenge the activities or expectations in the change initiative – that is, unless they’re part of a group of more vocal employees. Believing that there is “power in the pack,” Dogs resist the change initiative through a group effort – and they’re not afraid to “fight dirty.”
What’s Bad About Dogs: Dogs may be man’s best friend, but they can also be terrifying in an angry pack – particularly a pack that is united in staunchly fighting the change initiative, in whole or in part. Because change is frightening, some employees may go along with the “pack” because they fear being ostracized by their peers or coworkers.
What’s Good About Dogs: Because Dogs are part of a pack, swaying the opinion of one Dog toward the change initiative can lead to the entire group becoming more receptive to the changes. Also, if there is a group of employees who have banded together to fight some aspect of the change initiative, this is a clear indication that the change initiative most likely has unintentional deleterious effects for a subset of the workforce.
The Owl. The Owl is usually an experienced employee – someone who has been with the company for a long time or is recognized as an expert in their field. Because they are wise and knowledgeable, they will point out minute flaws in any aspect of the change initiative. The challenge is that Owls believe that, although it is their duty to identify problems, they consider that any active involvement in remedying those problems is “beneath” them.
What’s Bad About Owls: Owls can appear to be condescending, “know-it-alls” who focus too much on the details – but miss the big picture. By overlooking the broader outcomes associated with the change initiative, Owls can develop tunnel vision that obscures any information that is not within their area of expertise or interest. This can be particularly damaging if an Owl is selected to lead a change initiative.
What’s Good About Owls: Subject matter expertise and knowledge are essential criteria for an employee to be considered an Owl. As a result, they have a breadth and depth of knowledge about how the changes will affect their department, unit, or location. Listen to them! But also encourage them to take the lead in improving the steps in the change initiative, so that they can mentor others to create the necessary changes.
The Snail. The Snail just…kind of…creeps along…with their tasks. Their goal is to avoid making any waves. This reaction to change is usually based on fear about the potential consequences, so they will make every effort to avoid detection.
What’s Bad About Snails: It’s difficult to understand how a Snail feels about a change initiative; because they tend to “fly under the radar,” they are often overlooked or tend to avoid discussing their opinions in meetings. They do their jobs in a way that makes their performance less likely to stand out from the crowd – for either good or bad results.
What’s Good About Snails: Snails will continue to get their work done – but don’t expect them to wholeheartedly embrace the changes. Because the work is still getting done, this can be a good thing for consistency during a change initiative. Also, snails won’t “make a scene” or add to the disruption in a workplace undergoing change.
Identifying an employee as one of these “zoo animals” does not mean that change leaders should attempt to squash their responses. Quite the opposite: change leaders should view their reactions to the proposed changes as red flags or beacons warning about aspects of the change initiative that may have been overlooked.
Change resistors can actually prevent a change initiative from derailing – IF they are respected and listened to.
5 Quick Tips to Benefit From
the Insights of Change Resistors
Change leaders can only observe the behaviors of these animals in the change resistance zoo in response to their requests to change – but it takes a little more digging to unmask the why behind these perspectives.
The following five tips will help you better understand the reasons behind change resistant employees’ behaviors and then adapt your management style to help guide them toward acceptance of the desired changes.
Tip #1: Communicate the practical economic reasons for the change, but don’t forget to include emotional appeals to employees’ values. This transforms the change initiative from a cold, quantitative rationale to one that is inspirational and motivating.
Tip #2: Always listen to employees’ concerns before, during, and after a change initiative. Resistant behaviors and words that are not acknowledged can potentially undermine the desired changes.
Tip #3: Respect employees’ fears about the changes by taking an evolutionary approach to change. Rather than focusing on what will change, also highlight what will remain the same. This provides a sense of security for workers.
Tip #4: Include employee input throughout the change initiative. Don’t just “spring” changes on employees! Instead, frame the problem that needs to be addressed and ask key employees and network leaders for their opinions on how to remedy the problem. In nearly all cases, this will involve a change of some kind – but it will be embraced because the employees had input into how this will be achieved.
Tip #5: Focus on the resistance as a potential treasure trove of new ideas. Tap down any feelings of anger and resentment that your workers are not immediately embracing the changes. Remember that it is impossible to predict every possible outcome or effect of a change initiative – so, listen to your change resistors for insights that you might have overlooked (and which could potentially sabotage the changes).
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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