Organizational Change

Leading the Change Process to Reduce Resistance

Change management Graphics courtesy of Maryville UniversityOpens in new window

Most changes are originated by senior leadership. The changes are then passed down to lower leadership levels for successful implementation. In this process, the leader is the person who must cope with employees’ anxietiesOpens in new window and fearsOpens in new window about change.

The environment created by the leader can greatly affect employees’ acceptance of change. Several suggestions for creating a positive environment for change are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Build Trust

If employees trust and have confidence in the leader, they are much more likely to accept changes; otherwise, they are likely to resist change vigorously. Trust cannot be established overnight: It is built over a period of time.

The leader’s actions determine the degree of the employee’s trust. Employees will trust a leader they perceive to be fair, honest, and forthright.

Employees will not trust a manager who they feel is always trying to take advantage of them. Leaders can go a long way toward building trust if they discuss upcoming changes with their employees, and if they actively involve the employees in the change process.

Openly Communicate and Discuss Changes

Communication about impending change is essential if employees are to adjust effectively. The details of the change should be provided, but equally important is the rationale behind the change.

Employees want to know why change is needed. If there is no good reason for it, why should they favor the change?

Fear of the unknown, one of the major barriers to change, can be greatly reduced by openly discussing any upcoming or current changes with the affected employees.

A leader should always begin by explaining the 5 Ws and an H to the employees:

  • What the change is?
  • Why is it needed?
  • Whom will it affect?
  • When will it take place?
  • Where will it take place? And,
  • How will it take place?

During this discussion, leaders should be as open and honest as possible.

The more background and detail leaders can give, the more likely it is that the employees will accept the changes. Leaders should also outline the impact of the changes on each of the affected employees. People are primarily interested in how change will affect them as individuals.

It is critical that leaders give employees an opportunity to ask questions. This is the major advantage of an oral discussion over a written memo.

Regardless of how thorough an explanation may be, employees will usually have questions that leaders should answer to the fullest extent possible. When employees receive all the facts and get their questions answered, their resistance often fades.

This explains why, for example, company officials at one organization allow their employees to review company profit and loss statements and answer their questions about the organization’s performance. Improved communication is particularly effective in reducing problems resulting from unclear situations.

For example, when the grapevine is active with rumors of cutbacks and layoffs, honest and open communication of the true facts can be a calming force. Even if the news is bad, a clear message often wins points and helps employees accept change. When communication is ambiguous and employees feel threatened, they often imagine scenarios that are considerably worse than the actual “bad news.”

Involve the Employees

Changes that are “sprung” on employees with little or no warning will likely result in resistance—simply as a knee-jerk reaction—until employees can assess how the change affects them. In contrast, employees who are involved in the change process better understand the need for change, and therefore, are less likely to resist it.

Additionally, people who participate in making a decision tend to be more committed to the outcome than those who are not involved.

Employee involvement in change can be extremely effective. It is difficult for individuals to resist a change when they participated in the decision and helped implement it. The psychology is simple: No one wants to oppose something that he or she has helped develop.

It is useful to solicit employee ideas and input as early as possible in the change process. Don’t wait until the last minute to ask the employees what they think about a change. When affected employees have been involved in a change at, or near, its inception, they will usually actively support the change.

Provide Rewards and Incentives

Employers can give employees rewards and incentives to help them see that supporting a change is in their best interests. One rather obvious—and quite successful—mechanism to facilitate change is rewarding people for behaving in the desired fashion. For example, employees who are required to learn to use new equipment should be praised for their successful efforts.

In order to make incentives work effectively, employers should analyze the source of the resistance, and what might overcome that resistance. For example, employees may be afraid they won’t be able to do a new task.

Leaders could provide them with new skills training, or a short paid leave of absence to allow them to calm down, rethink their fears, and realize that their concerns are unfounded.

A difficult change can also have positive aspects. Layoffs can be viewed as opportunities for those who remain, allowing jobs to be redesigned to provide new challenges and responsibilities. Other incentives that can help reduce resistance include a pay increase, a new title, flexible work hours, or increased job autonomy.

Make Sure the Changes Are Reasonable

Leaders should always do whatever is possible to ensure that any proposed changes are reasonable. Proposed changes that originate with senior leadership are sometimes totally unreasonable. When this is the case, it is usually because senior leadership is not aware of specific circumstances that make the changes unworkable. It is the leader’s responsibility to intervene in such situations and communicate the problem to upper management.

Educate the Workforce

Sometimes, people are reluctant to change because they fear what the future has in store. For example, fears about economic security may be put to rest by a few reassuring words from leadership.

As part of educating employees about what organizational change means for them, senior leadership must show considerable emotional sensitivity.

Doing so makes it possible for people affected by a change to help make it work. Some companies have found that simply answering the question, “What’s in it for me?” can help to allay many fears.

Avoid Threats

The leaders who attempts to implement change through the use of threats is taking a negative approach likely to decrease employee trust. A natural reaction is, “This must be bad news if it requires a threat.”

Most people also dislike being threatened into accepting something. Even though threats may get results in the short term, they may be damaging to employees’ morale and attitude over a longer period of time.

Follow a Sensible Time Schedule

As mentioned previously, most changes are passed down from senior leadership to lower leadership for implementation. The lower leader often has control or influence over when changes should be implemented. However, some times are better than others.

For example, the week before Christmas or the height of the vacation season would ordinarily not be good times to implement a major change. Leaders should rely on their valuable insights into the department and on their common sense when recommending a time schedule for implementing a change.

Implement the Changes in a Sensible Manner

Leaders often have some choice about where changes will take place. When making these decisions, leaders should rely on logic and common sense.

For example, the operational manager usually decides who will get a new piece of equipment. It would be sensible to introduce the equipment through those employees who are naturally more adaptable and flexible than others. If the operational manager makes it a point to know their employees, they usually will have a good idea as to which are more flexible.

Another consideration in introducing changes is to implement them where possible in a way that minimizes their effects on interpersonal relationships. The leader should try not to disturb smoothly working groups or teams.

Provide Empathy and Support

Another strategy for overcoming resistance is providing empathy and support to employees who have trouble dealing with the change. Active listening is an excellent tool for identifying the reasons behind resistance and for uncovering fears.

An expression of concerns about the change can provide important feedback that leaders can use to improve the change process.

Emotional support and encouragement can help an employee deal with the anxiety that is a natural response to change. Employees who experience severe reactions to change can benefit from talking with a counselor. Some companies provide counseling through their employee assistance plans.

  1. By T. R. Ramanathan, The Role of Organisational Change Management in Offshore Outsourcing ..., (p.20-22) Nature and Dimensions of Change