Most change leaders think of employee resistance as a bad thing, something to be “overcome.” They are afraid of resistance, bewildered by it, and haven’t a clue about what to do when it occurs. Mostly, their efforts at resolving it make it worse. Certainly, resistance can destroy your change effort, but only if you ignore it or handle it improperly.
You cannot avoid employee resistance, nor keep it from occurring. It is a natural part of every complex change effort. So, the only real long-term solution is to become expert in dealing with it. Then, you will be able to turn it into a tremendous positive force that can actually support the success of your change efforts.
Recall Webster’s definition of resistance from Part One of this article:
1. The ability of an organism to ward off disease.
2. A force that retards, hinders, or opposes motion.
3. The active psychological opposition to the bringing of unconscious, usually repressed, material to consciousness.
There are different types of resistance. In Part One, we dealt with the first type (definition number one), and suggested that employees—both frontline workers and leaders alike—resist change “like a disease” when they perceive the direction of the change (its content) or the way in which the change is being designed and implemented (its process) as wrong. We suggested that the best way to deal with this healthy type of resistance is for you to go talk to resisting employees and ask them how to make your change effort better. Enroll them into helping provide a more effective solution. More often than not, you will discover brilliant ideas that will either alter the direction of your change or improve the way you are designing and implementing it. And, you will instantly create a cadre of people who will use their previously “negative” energy to make positive contributions to the success of the change.
In this article, we are going to explore the types of resistance that originate within the psychological processes of all people (again, both leaders and frontline workers), and how you can work with these substantial mental, emotional, and behavioral forces to make your change efforts more successful. First, we will address definition two through exploring the body’s natural “homeostatic” mechanism and its role in “causing” resistance. Then, we will investigate six core psychological issues that are triggered by change and are another source of resistance (definition three).
Homeostasis is the “tendency to maintain or return (bodily functions) to normal internal stability.” This self-regulating mechanism is a life sustaining force. It regulates body temperature, hormonal activity, blood flow, neurological responses, etc., so stress and challenge do not elevate your heart rate, adrenaline levels, or body temperature to levels you could not sustain without risk to your health. No matter what challenges you face, your internal homeostatic mechanism returns you to “normal” as efficiently as possible. Homeostasis is not only a good thing, but also necessary to stay alive.
Homeostasis also impacts our psychological and behavioral processes. For example, you have likely heard people (and yourself) state, “I just want to get back to my normal routine”… “sleep in my own bed”… “do it like we have always done.” It is not so much that we resist change, but that we naturally want to go back to our normal, habitual state because it is just more comfortable.
Resistance usually connotes an act of will, but homeostasis has nothing to do with will, and everything to do with how people are hard wired. Employees do not overtly think, “I am going to actively resist this change.” Instead, they simply unconsciously desire their current reality over any changes to it. What seems like resistance is simply a by-product of their internal self-regulating mechanism. Homeostasis is an unconscious force, not a conscious one.
For us change leaders, this means that we must provide places for employees to find psychological comfort in what is remaining the same in their organizational reality, while they participate in creating their new future. We must build change strategies that provide some small incremental steps and allow respites along the way. We must honor the past, amplify the positive attributes of the present, and overtly carry them into the future. If we don’t provide these psychological reprieves, then the further away from the norm the change effort takes people, the more they will naturally and aggressively attempt to go back to “the way things were.” The rubber band always wants to find its way back to a relaxed, comfortable, “un-stretched” position.
Please note that there are people who are more comfortable with change than with stability, but people with this personality type are in the minority. A discussion of this concept is beyond the scope of this article.
We identify six core psychological needs (Webster’s third definition) that get triggered by organizational change. Some of these needs are culturally biased, some universal across cultures. We acknowledge that we are discussing them in this article from our own limited, western mindset and culture. If you are of a different nationality, then please adapt these ideas to fit your culture’s norms.
First, we will identify the six core human needs, then we discuss their implications when threatened by change, and finally what to do about them to enhance your change results. Every individual has all six needs to some degree, but one or two are always most important to them and will drive their behavior. As you read, consider your own profile.
Needing to feel secure and physically/ emotionally safe
“I need to know things will be okay. I need to feel physically and emotionally safe, without threat.”
Needing to be invited into what is happening, in relationship with others, and cared about
“Will I be on the team that is doing this work, or overlooked as a result of this change? Will I be a part of the future?”
Needing to have direct influence on the process and outcome of the change Change causes people to question what level of power and influence they will have in the future:
“Will I lose power through this change, or will I gain it? Will I be able to influence things to go the way I want?”
Needing order in the change and a predictable map to follow “I need to be in charge of what’s happening and know there is a good plan.”
Needing to be—or be seen—as capable, effective, skilled, and right These people want to know they will be capable of succeeding and to be seen by others as competent.
“Will I be able to perform and succeed in the new organization and be seen as competent?”
Needing things to be fair and equitable Change can cause these people to question whether decisions will be fair to them, or based on politics, whim, or nepotism: “Will the decisions and outcomes of this change be just and equitable?”
As you can imagine, there are numerous situations in your change efforts that will trigger these psychological responses in leaders and employees. Some of these responses will be positive, others negative, depending on the person’s conditioning. For instance, if people with a high need for power and control are taken out of the decision-making loop or not given any choice about their future, they will react negatively. But, if you ask them for their input and give them clear options to choose from, they will feel more in control of their fate and more positive about the change.
Similarly, if you put people with a high need to be seen as competent into unfamiliar and visible roles, they will be very concerned about failing and publicly looking bad. However, if you give them the opportunity and time to learn and excel at their new responsibilities before being judged, they will enthusiastically go after success because their passion for competency will drive them to it!
Each of these human concerns, although often unconscious, has its predictable positive and negative dynamics. If you are unaware of the power these forces have over human behavior, then you will likely inadvertently “cause” resistance to your change effort by not designing your change to minimize their disruptive impact. However, if you are sensitive to these dynamics and can identify your organization’s most important concerns, you can build your change strategy and process to minimize them. Then your change efforts will run much more smoothly.
Change leaders must learn to recognize when people’s resistance is being triggered by these psychological issues. Sometimes, when people state that they don’t agree with the direction of the change or the process being used to implement it, they are actually feeling psychologically out of control, at risk of being excluded or seen as incompetent. The only way to discern the real cause of the resistance is to speak openly and frankly about these underlying issues.
But there is a significant challenge here. Most people don’t perceive, let alone acknowledge, these deeper issues. They repress them, and take that energy and project it onto the change as bad, a “disease” to be resisted. Consequently, change leaders must learn how to engage people in these personal conversations in non-threatening ways.
The best place to start is to identify your own psychological issues that are triggered by your organization’s changes. How are YOU feeling—at a loss for power, or that decisions are unfair, or that the future is unsafe for you? By getting in touch with what is true for yourself, you will become much more successful at relating to other peoples’ similar concerns. Also, when you speak about your own concerns at this level, and acknowledge them as natural and expected in everyone, then others will feel a level of permission to explore their own issues. People will seek ways to resolve their fears, and begin to see the positive nature of the change being implemented. The resistance will transform naturally to positive contribution, and your results will skyrocket.
Dealing with these deep psychological issues is the greatest challenge a change leader faces. But this task cannot be ignored just because it is difficult.
At Being First, Inc., our way of handling this issue is that we will only take large consulting projects in which the senior leaders commit to a significant learning process where they discover how these issues manifest in themselves and their organizations. This work is done through our Breakthrough to Change Leadership course, one-on-one coaching, and Self Mastery programs. We find that an organization’s success at change is in direct correlation to the degree to which the senior leaders understand these human dynamics and are able to deal with them in themselves and others. This awareness and skill is a critical key to successful change leadership, as our clients have repeatedly demonstrated.
For every change effort, assess what psychological issue will be dominant for your overall organization and its major stakeholder groups. Then, build change strategies to mitigate those concerns. In doing this, be sure to review the key content, people, and process elements of your change strategy to discern exactly what might activate these psychological responses in your people. Also, be sure to assess what training might be needed to develop your managers’ ability to work with these issues in team and one-on-one settings. You will likely want to develop change agents and facilitators who can lead your key change events in ways that help resolve these issues for people. Also, analyze all of your change communications to ensure that both the content of your messages, and your vehicles and styles for delivering it, minimize these issues.
As you attend to these natural human dynamics in your change efforts, you will create a foundation for high performance in your organization that will live far beyond your current change. Remember, resistance is simply positive energy waiting to be unleashed.