With the rapid evolution in technology, innovation is key to keeping your company competitive. The problem is, it can be incredibly difficult to create a culture of change in an organization – especially when change is rejected before the rationale behind it is explained or understood.
If you’re in a fast-changing business, resistance to change can be one of the biggest obstacles that your leadership teams will have to face. The good news is that even if your employees resist a process change at your company at first, it doesn’t mean your new process is doomed to fail.
Let’s dive into how to better understand why resistance to change is practically unavoidable, and how you can overcome the two biggest hurdles you’re likely to face during a process change.
Understanding resistance to change
Change is an integral part of human existence. As a business grows, it must adapt to succeed. Old processes that worked well for a team of 10 people are replaced by new methods that are better suited to function across six departments of 20 people each. Old approaches to marketing and delivering products must evolve over time to keep up with changes in markets, technologies and consumer preferences. Just like the human body, if a business doesn’t adapt as it grows, it cannot survive.
If change is so central to our lives, why do we find it so difficult in our work? Here are some of the reasons for our resistance to change:
Change is getting faster. Today, change within organizations happens at an incredibly fast pace. Reorganizations, new technologies and different processes are introduced in most companies on a regular basis. The speed of change, rather than the change itself, can make adjustment difficult.
We need to know why. Neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl believed that as humans, our primary drive is not for pleasure nor power, but for meaning. His famous words ring true in many contexts: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” When change moves too fast to understand the purpose behind it, or when the goal is not clearly explained, employees are more likely to resist the change.
Habit is powerful. Going for a jog may take some of your energy, but it’s got nothing on the time you spend thinking. Our brains use more of our energy than any other organ, and as a result, we rely on habits to limit the number of things we need to think about. Note how influential people from Steve Jobs to President Obama wear the same outfit over and over again. We cling to our habits, and changing a work habit can be disorienting because it requires a lot of brain energy to adapt to the new way of working.
When your process change happens so quickly that your employees can’t make sense of it and it threatens to interfere with the daily habits they’ve formed, your company is often faced with two types of hurdles. It’s up to business leaders to overcome these obstacles, to make it easier for your whole team to adopt a change successfully.
Two challenges your change process needs to overcome
While resistance to change can pop up during your change process in many ways, there are two challenges your company will most likely come across. If you don’t address these, you will be less likely to see the change take hold at your company. Here’s what they are and how you can overcome them.
Leadership ambivalence or hostility
The C-suite can be as prone to resisting change as anyone else at your company. If executives are ambivalent about the change, your new process may flounder. If your leaders are against the change altogether, it’s unlikely to ever get off the ground.
Research shows active and visible executive sponsorship is the No. 1 predictor of a change initiative’s success. That’s why shoring up executive support for your process change must be a priority.
You can build leadership support by:
Appointing an executive sponsor. This sponsor should engage other senior managers to get their support. They should also serve as the spokesperson for the initiative and manage resistance to the new process. Their goal is to build and maintain a strong coalition of employees, including executives, who support the project.
Creating a strong governance framework. Establish a governance structure that will systematically and regularly bring different stakeholders together. This will help keep them committed and allow you to seek their guidance on the project direction. For example, if you’re implementing a major IT project that will affect the way the customer-service team interacts with clients, your stakeholders need to be part of the project’s governance structure.
Ambiguity and uncertainty
Change initiatives include a degree of ambiguity to allow for flexibility as the project takes shape. Too much ambiguity, though, and the initiative will lose all direction and fail.
Your entire company needs to be certain of the purpose behind the change and the desired outcomes or the definition of success. If these are unclear to your employees, they won’t know what they’re driving toward, and they’ll be left uncertain and unmotivated to adopt the process change. Consider using storytelling as a strategy to help employees resonate with the reasons behind the change and get them invested in its success.
It’s not enough to clear up uncertainty around the reason for the change; you must also reduce uncertainty around how the change will take place. Determine and communicate your direction with a documented change management process and a communication framework. Providing a phase-based implementation approach allows you to introduce the new process gradually and effectively. By combining this with clear communication, you further reduce misunderstandings and issues among your employees.
Your entire team will know what to expect, what they have to do and by when. With a communication framework, they will even have the chance to offer their feedback. Not only does this help you fine-tune your new process to meet your company’s exact needs, but it gives your employees another way to make sense of the change. Research shows that creating meaning is related to willingness to change, so these tools are invaluable to overcoming the hurdle of ambiguity and uncertainty.
The more time you put into anticipating and planning for resistance to change, the quicker and more efficient your change implementation will be. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.