People resist change
How much has failed, or poorly implemented change cost your business In your experience, why does change fail, or not bed down successfully? In many cases, it is because people resist change.
One of the biggest myths about change is that people don’t like it. They are difficult and immovable. Whatever managers do will make little difference. While it is true that some personality types find change more challenging than others, many people love change and will initiate it themselves. So why do so many people resist change?
Why change is resisted
If it were true that people don’t like change, nobody would ever buy new clothes, change a hairstyle, move house or have children. What people don’t like is the change they didn’t choose. And why they don’t like it is they don’t want to lose something in the change. Humans are hard-wired to resist loss. Roughly speaking, losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining that thing will make you happy.
The greater the expected loss, the greater the resistance to the change. People’s fear is based on their perception of the situation – it doesn’t matter whether their beliefs are accurate. If people sense loss they will resist the change. If they don’t have enough information to determine if the change is going to result in a loss, they will resist until they have enough information to decide.
Gains must exceed the loss
Even a good change can result in loss. For example, Diane gets a promotion to a new role, with a new team and a corner office. All good? Let’s consider what she might lose as a result. Diane is losing her relationships with her old team and for a time, until she gets up to speed, her sense of competence. Now in this scenario, for Diane, the gains outweigh the losses, so she will make the change.
But consider this scenario. Amanda is also offered a promotion. Amanda has a very strong sense of belonging to her existing team and she is also not a confident person. She agonises about the decision, and her fear of failing in the new role (loss of competence) and concerns about losing her relationships with her work friends eventually sway her to decline the opportunity.
A business relocates its offices from the outer suburbs to the CBD. Everyone will gain access to shopping, banking and cafes within a short walk. The offices are new, great fit out, new furniture and in a great location with water views. However, at the old site, there was ample free parking and the new site has none. People will have to take public transport or pay for parking in the city. Depending on people’s priorities they react very differently. Some are thrilled at the move and others are very unhappy. The very unhappy ones are opposed to the loss of car parking and for them, no fancy office will make up for that.
New billing system
Jonathon is a billing systems operator for a large utility. He has used the system for 14 years and is considered the “go-to expert” for anything to do with setting up difficult payment plans. The business implements a new billing system and Jonathon is very opposed. He criticises the system at every opportunity and makes his unhappiness at the changes obvious. Jonathon’s manager is at a loss to understand. “We had to get a new system, the old one was hopelessly out of date! Jonathon is doing the same job he has been doing for years and everyone is in the same boat, we all have to learn how to use the new system”.
There is the issue. Jonathon has lost his expert status. He is no longer the “go-to guy”. His level of expertise is now the same as everyone else and that is a significant loss of competence and status for him.
Assessing The Perceived Loss
When an organization changes, it’s crucial to delve into the psyche of the people affected. Understanding what they stand to lose—or what they perceive they will lose—is a critical step in managing change effectively. These losses can range across various aspects of their professional lives, from their sense of security to the very essence of their daily routines.
The feeling of security is foundational in the workplace. When change looms, the uncertainty can be unsettling. Employees may worry about their place in the new order, the stability of their jobs, and the predictability of their work environment. This loss of control can be deeply disconcerting, leading to a drop in morale and productivity as employees grapple with what the future holds.
Competence is a core component of professional identity. Change often brings new processes, technologies, and methodologies that can make seasoned employees feel like novices. This can be intimidating, leading to a fear of not being able to meet new expectations or manage increased workloads. The challenge is to ensure that employees feel supported and capable of mastering new competencies.
Relationships form the social backbone of work life. Change can disrupt established connections with customers, colleagues, and managers. It can alter the dynamics of teamwork and collaboration, eroding the sense of belonging to a group or organization. The loss of these social networks can be one of the most profound changes individuals face, affecting both their professional and personal lives.
Sense of Direction
Employees need a clear sense of direction—the ‘why’ behind their roles and tasks. Change can cloud this understanding, leaving employees feeling lost or unsure of their purpose within the organization. This can diminish motivation and engagement, making it harder for employees to align with the organization’s new vision.
Territory goes beyond the physical workspace—it encompasses job roles, assignments, and even psychological space. Changes in territory can lead to a sense of displacement or infringement on one’s professional domain, causing discomfort and resistance.
Respect is earned through proven methods and practices. When change suggests that the ‘old ways’ are no longer valid, it can feel like a personal critique. Employees may resist change as a way to defend their professional integrity and the respect they’ve garnered over time.
For many professionals, their expert knowledge is a source of pride and a cornerstone of their value to the organization. When change renders this expertise less relevant or obsolete, it can lead to a significant loss of self-esteem and a questioning of one’s importance within the company.
Disruption of Routine
Humans are creatures of habit, and the disruption of routine can be one of the most immediate and palpable effects of change. The loss of familiar patterns and practices can lead to a sense of disorientation and a longing for the comfort of the old ways.
Tangible benefits such as career prospects, wages, and additional perks can be directly impacted by change. When employees perceive that change may lead to increased demands without commensurate rewards, it can lead to significant dissatisfaction and a feeling of being undervalued.
The Threat to Position, Power, and Security
Ultimately, change can threaten an employee’s position, power, and sense of security within an organization. The loss of status and prestige can be particularly difficult to accept, as these are often the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. This threat can be a powerful undercurrent driving resistance to change.
In summary, assessing the perceived loss is about understanding the multifaceted impact of change on an individual’s professional life. By acknowledging and addressing these concerns, leaders can navigate the complex emotional landscape of change management and help their teams embrace the new direction with confidence and optimism.
How to deal with the perceived loss
Once you have identified possible losses, you need to plan for how you will deal with them. You could:
- Reframe it – Involves challenging the assumption the loss will have only negative impacts. It involves focusing instead on what is positive and controllable about the situation.
- Replace it – Involves looking for other ways to get what people have lost, or finding gains that outweigh the losses.
Let’s take another look at Jonathon and rewind the change to the beginning. When the business decided to get a new billing system, each manager was asked to consider the people in their team, which were important to them and what they would lose. Jonathon’s manager identified that Jonathon places a great deal of value on his expert status and competence in using the old system. Once that is identified, Jonathon is brought into the change team as an “expert user” to help define the scope of the new system. When the system is selected, Jonathon is given additional training in the new processes and becomes the identified “super user” for others to go to for help. Jonathon is a passionate advocate for the new system and helps others through their resistance to the change.
Embracing the Change Journey
Managing change is a complex journey, but it can be navigated successfully. By understanding that resistance is not about change itself but about the fear of loss, we can approach change management with empathy and strategy. It’s about communication, understanding individual perceptions, and providing support throughout the transition. Remember, people aren’t just resisting change—they’re looking to protect their sense of self. Our job is to guide them through this process, transforming potential losses into opportunities for growth and development.
- About the Author
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Rosalind Cardinal is the Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, a consultancy specialising in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organisations.
Ros is a solutions and results oriented facilitator and leadership coach, with a career in the Human Resources and Organisational Development field spanning more than 20 years. Ros’ expertise spans leadership development, organisational culture, team building, change and transition management, emotional intelligence, organisational behaviour, employee engagement, strategic direction and management.
Ros is a Certified Member of the Australian Human Resources Institute (CAHRI), a member of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD) and a Professional Member of the Australian Association for Psychological Type (AusAPT). She holds a Graduate Diploma in Human Resources from Deakin University, an Australian Human Resources Institute Professional Diploma in Human Resources and has completed the Australian Graduate School of Management Executive Program, Strategic Human Resource Management.