Why people resist change

There is no doubt that there is an extraordinary amount of change taking place in many workplaces today. Restructures, redundancies, new priorities from Government, major changes from Central Office or funding bodies, and new ways of working with technology, are just a few examples. 

While many people accept the reality of the situation and adjust themselves to what is required, others feel deeply affected at a personal level and resist engaging with the changes.

You would think that given change is one of the constants in life, that everyone should be good at embracing change.

But this is simply not the case. Why is this? 

  1. They don't want the change. This is understandable, particularly with changes like redundancy. There may well be a fear for their financial security. People dealing with unwanted change may need help in accepting that this change is beyond their control and not due to their performance (if that is the case). They will also need a lot of empathy and support, before they put their energy into actions they can take to cope or adjust to the new reality.

    So, it is worth giving some thought as to who is likely to be affected by the changes and how you can respond well to their concerns. 
     
  2. They don't believe in the change. Perhaps some individuals are cynical about what is proposed, saying they have seen it all before. It can certainly help when management are selling the rationale and the benefits attached to the change. So those in leadership roles need to be setting the right example, modeling helpful attitudes to the change, even if it is simply, "Let's do the best we can with what we have."

    Of course, it helps if all power-brokers (management team, senior staff, individuals with strong personalities) are deliberately engaged with the change as their example also carries significant weight.
     
  3. They have a strong need for power. Some individuals, who have a strong psychological need for power, resist any change they do not agree with or that was not initiated by them. Pressuring such high-power individuals to change tends to result in greater resistance or sabotage from them.  

    Smart managers adjust themselves to cater to these individuals' strong need for power, control and respect. They do so by accessing their expertise, making the changes sound consistent with what they have proposed before, and asking their advice on how to overcome the challenges that are being identified by them.

    Some managers acknowledge the power of these individuals by saying that they need their support, as others will look to them for their example. Or they give them limited choices where these individuals have some control. When there is cooperation at some level, these managers thank them genuinely for their efforts rather than criticising them for actions yet to be taken.
     
  4. Other issues are more important. We need to remind ourselves that a change that is important to us (or Central Office) is not necessarily important for others. Perhaps some of their staff are close to retirement and they don't see the point in changing. Other staff may well be overwhelmed with other priorities. Some may be suffering change fatigue and resisting the current changes is an attempt to regain some control over their lives.

    It can often help to sell the benefits of the change, particularly those that are motivating for the individual concerned – less stress for them, opportunity to learn, better outcomes for clients, for example. Support your claims with evidence when this is possible. 
     
  5. They don't know what to do. Sometimes we think people are resisting change, when really they don't understand the change or know where to start. They may well need some very clear guidance and assistance in taking the steps required. 

    It can help to clarify with these people what the main priorities are, freeing them up from unnecessary responsibilities, and lowering their expectations of themselves so they don't have to do it all, or certainly not at an unrealistically high level. Small steps are better than no progress at all.

    These people, in particular, benefit from training and support to help them adjust to what is required. Examples of support might include: in-house training, coaching or mentoring, and assistance with implementation. Some of these people need to know that it is OK if mistakes are made and to ask for help if they need it.
     
  6. They are going through personal problems. We all go through personal challenges at different times. Most of the time, we do not let these challenges impact on our performance. However, challenges such as relationship breakdown, mental health problems, or serious health concerns can affect many people’s performance and ability to embrace change.

    Of course, when you are aware that someone is going through a major personal challenge, this helps you to have realistic expectations and to not be frustrated or offended by their behaviour. It also helps to provide these people with additional support or to free them up from some responsibilities. 

    For individuals who never seem to come to the end of personal difficulties and use their circumstances as an excuse for poor performance, it can help to ask for a trade whenever there is a concession from the employer. For example, “Here is what I am prepared to do to help … but in return I need from you …”.
     
  7. They are unhappy with how the changes are being implemented. Often people say it is not so much the changes they are unhappy about, but how the changes are being made. Many changes are imposed from above - from Government, Central Office or senior management - with people feeling totally removed from decisions that affect their work. 

    Or they are not given sufficient information about what is taking place. Or bad news is broken to them ... very badly. So many staff can feel devalued, disempowered, and disengaged, and far more likely to not cooperate or resist the changes being made.

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