7 Common reasons why employees resist change and how to encourage them to embrace new developments

Resistance to change can be a major challenge to any new initiatives you might want to implement in your business.

Most business owners will be able to identify some employees that prefer the status quo and find new developments difficult to embrace. But before we think about how we can overcome this resistance, we need to properly understand why people resist change.

Here are 7 common reasons why people resist change, and how you can overcome each in turn, to ensure that your staff tackle changes and new developments with a positive attitude;

1. The need for change isn’t recognised

Information about the need for change might not get past the brain’s gatekeeper. This is the part of the brain that continually monitors our environment and decides what needs to be attended to and what can safely be ignored.

Presented with new information it asks:

  • How is this relevant to me, my needs or my interests?
  • Does this information present me with a challenge I need to engage with?
  • Is it new information?
  • Is it interesting?

Fail to stimulate a ‘yes’ response to any of these and the information doesn’t even register with the conscious brain and so no behaviour change takes place. This can be labelled resistance.

2. Change may trigger a defensive emotional response

The information might trigger a defensive emotional reaction. The part of the brain that assesses danger is very sensitive to perceived threat and will trigger an automatic reaction to perceived danger, commonly known as the fight, flight or freeze response. All of these responses can be interpreted as ‘resistance to change’.

3. Previous poor experiences

There may be a previous organisational history of change badly done or of ineffectual change initiatives. In this situation the change announcement can trigger a ‘they’re crying wolf’ response of just ignoring the signals that change is coming.

Alternatively it might trigger a ‘heads down and this too will pass’ reaction. Any visible behaviour change is likely to be more of the ‘hunkering down’ type than active engagement with the change.

4. Change fatigue

Organisations and people can suffer from change fatigue. Change takes energy and a group of people overworked and stressed can be incapable of responding positively to a change initiative – even if they think it is a good idea.

There is no active resistance but there is little volunteering and lots of suggestions about how someone else could take this on.

5. Legitimate objections to proposed change

Sometimes there is a good reason to push back against the proposed change. People elsewhere in the organisation may be able to see things that the change originators can’t. They may be speaking up trying to protect valuable, precious and important things in the organisation.

They can easily be misheard as protecting their own situation ‘they would say that wouldn’t they’. In this case their legitimate objections are discounted and they are labelled resistors.

6. Emotions may cause actions to be delayed

People are emotional beings and sometimes, even if the change ‘makes sense’ in a logical and rational way, people will have an emotional reaction that leads them to delay doing things or making changes.

A classic example is the need to deliver bad news, for example critical feedback or news of redundancy. People may accept the need but delay the action. This looks like resistance.

7. Brain capacity

They may not have the brain capacity to focus on building new habits. Using the hard drive and RAM analogy, we can imagine the brain as having a lot of hard drive capacity but relatively little RAM.

When we are trying to build new habits we are using a lot of the RAM available to us until the new behaviour becomes a habit. If we are using our RAM to cope with fast changing situations already it can be hard to systematically also build a new habit.

That’s why we decide to put off instigating that new exercise regime until this mad project rush is over and we have time to think!

So, how can we encourage people to embrace change?

It’s all very well knowing what may be causing workers to resist change, but for business owners, the key is being able to overcome this resistance. Here are 7 ways to do just this;

1. Acknowledgement

Acknowledge the impact. Recognise that making changes takes time and energy

2. Address bad experiences

Acknowledge previous bad experiences of change programmes and use them as a springboard for a positive discussion about what we can learn about how to make this one a better experience

3. Involve from an early stage

Involve people in identifying the need and designing the response to change. From their point of view this needn’t be overly time consuming. A one day large group event gives people the opportunity to truly focus on the opportunity, challenge, or need and to have influence at a very early stage in the response design.

The benefits of this approach are many. Appreciative inquiry is a good example of a methodology that creates these opportunities

4. Incorporate intelligence

Incorporate their intelligence rather than discount it. By engaging with people who will be affected early in the change process you are able make good use of their detailed local knowledge, and are in a much better position to assess their motivations in raising different issues.

Involving people earlier results in much better solutions down the line, with minimal resistance to them

5. Motivate positively

Be sure to engage people’s positive future oriented emotions rather than triggering their blocking ones. Motivation is drawn out of people through the creation of a pull towards an attractive future.

Co-creating ideas of how the future can be, based on the best of the past and the present, and exciting initiatives happening elsewhere, releases this pull motivational energy

6. Support new behaviour habits

Very actively support the creation of new behaviour habits to make it very easy to do the new thing, and to do it right;

  • Remove as many hurdles as you can between remembering to do the new thing and doing it. Make doing the new thing right the path of least resistance, not an effortful feat of memory and resource accessing.
  • Give frequent, small positive rewards for doing the right thing, especially at the very beginning of the behaviour change process. Initially you want to be right on it, being overly generous with recognition and support for effort made as well as results achieved.
  • Give this lots of attention. Don’t assume because you’ve told them you can now switch your attention to something else. They will attend to what you attend to. Make sure they can see in your words and behaviour that this is your primary focus.
  • Make it as routine. Emphasise that ‘we always do it the new way’. Have reminders and cues, for example Post-It Notes or posters, everywhere about the behaviour we want right now. Remember to change these regularly as they quickly become visual wallpaper.

7. Take a psychological approach

Switch from a sole emphasis on projects and planned change to incorporate more psychologically-based change approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry, World Café and Open Space.

By understanding the reasons for resistance and the above advice to help your team embrace the desired change, new behaviours and systems will be integrated faster and more effectively.

About the author

Sarah Lewis M.Sc. C.Psychol is founder of Appreciating Change, a business psychology consultancy specialising in helping organisations to achieve sustainable change. Sarah is an acknowledged Appreciative Inquiry expert, a regular conference presenter and author of ‘Positive Psychology at Work’ (Wiley) and ‘Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management’ (KoganPage). Sarah specialises in working with organisations to co-create organisational change using methodologies such as Appreciative Inquiry, and the practical application of positive psychology.

More help on motivating and managing staff

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