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Leaders Guide to Managing Resistance to Change

Posted 16 October 2020
by Gordan Stokes

One of the main challenges when facing change and transition is dealing with resistance from those who will be involved or impacted by the change.  Regardless of the appropriateness or the clear-cut benefits of the change, there will be resistance received by some people for a range of reasons.   There are no hard and fast rules on how to deal with resistance or to minimise its occurrence and severity; each situation will present its unique challenges and solutions. 

It is important to remember that resistance is borne typically out of fear, particularly the fear of the unknown or anticipation of negative outcomes.  Change during times of wider uncertainty are doubly unsettling, particularly change during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the anticipated element of uncertainty is further complicated by there not being a previous experience of change in these extraordinary circumstances. However, the same rules still apply in dealing with resistance and minimising the uncertainty. 

Resistance to change can have many reasons or justifications, some of the most common are:

  1. The belief that there is no need for change
  2. Risk of change to the individual/team/organisation
  3. The change will fail
  4. Lack of trust in the people carrying out the change
  5. There will not be a place within the organisation for the individual after the change

Communicate effectively

Resistance, as part of the change and transition, should be expected and anticipated.  Specific changes should be communicated as soon as possible to avoid uncontrolled rumours circulating.  The need for change should be communicated carefully.  The immediate impacts including the potential negative elements, should also be discussed.  As a leader, you will play a critical part in how effectively the changes are communicated to your team.  This should also be a two-way process, as it is important for you to discuss with your team members any concerns they may have in an open and respectful way. This will also help you tailor the support you provide throughout the change period.   

An example to consider, while not directly a change factor but one that has arisen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, is some people’s resistance to taking annual leave at a time when they may not want to use their leave.  Some people in your team may not see the benefit in using some of their annual leave as they cannot do what they would normally expect to do while on leave such as taking an overseas holiday.  Nevertheless, the benefits for your team members and the organisation need to be clearly communicated.  By explaining the need for the organisation to not carry an excessive leave commitment from a financial perspective, will help your team understand why it is important for them to take some leave.  It may be useful for you to express the associated benefits of taking leave to those who express some resistance including a chance for a break from work, the chance to reconnect with family and friends, particularly as restrictions are being eased, take day or short trips to areas you haven’t visited before and to refresh themselves physically and mentally.  

Be an advocate for change

Throughout the process, you must be an advocate for the change and demonstrate why.  It is important to remember that resistance usually comes from those that have a great investment in the organisation, have made a significant contribution previously, have been highly successful, and have strong views on the way forward.  While there may be a challenge to convince some people of the benefits of the change, they are also the best advocates for the change once they have come on board. 

Your advocacy is critical as well as of those that are influential in your team.  Demonstrate your own willingness to support and embrace the change.     

Deal with resistance in a structured manner

Whether on an individual or team basis, the reasons for resistance should be identified and dealt with in a structured manner.  As noted previously much of the resistance can arise due to people not understanding why the change is necessary and what the benefits of the change are.  Also, clarity around support from management and the provision of information throughout the change process should be provided which will help people feel valued and involved in the process. This in turn, will result in greater engagement.

Resistance is a natural reaction to change. Ultimately, the experience of change is an individual one and will likely need an individual response to any resistance.  There are significant benefits to engaging resistors, not least because they are influential, but they will have an impact to the benefit or the detriment of the success of the changes taking place.

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