Overcoming Resistance to Change

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

A business owner from Colorado called me the other day talk about ongoing change management initiatives in his company. While some of the changes were large-scale, others were essentially tactical; some addressed procedural changes, others involved personnel movements; some required significant budget considerations, others were fiscally straightforward. Regardless of their focus, duration, or impact, as a matter of due diligence, I earnestly suggested that the business owner always consider the three primary potential sources of resistance to change (e.g., organizational, group, individual), before any actual program is designed, developed or implemented, as well as the specific techniques for overcoming that resistance.

Acknowledging that resistance can literally decimate any change initiative (e.g., new GPS system on trucks, cell phone time tracking application, adopting BOSS, work order process, bonus plan, performance reviews, organizational restructure, purchasing procedures, safety program), the business owner adeptly shifted the conversation onto those specific best practices for overcoming such resistance. With that goal in mind, here are the six most common methods for overcoming resistance to change, that I shared with him:

Communication: The best way for overcoming potential resistance is to be as transparent as possible by sharing as much communication as feasible with all affected employees. Whether it is through departmental/organizational meetings, team meetings, timely e-mails, memoranda, payroll stuffers, and/or one-on-one sessions, the degree of education, facts, and impact (e.g., business need, adjustments, new performance expectations, cost, timelines, support) presented to employees is directly related to the success of the change initiative.

Participation: Involving workers in designing the change initiative as well as its rollout, is critical to overcoming resistance. By soliciting their input early on in the process, the employees feel engaged in that their ideas for design, implementation, and/or follow-up are valued by management. This participation shifts the perceived orientation from the change being forced onto them, to a stance where they have an opportunity to actually determine some aspect of the change itself.

Facilitation: Recognizing that change inherently causes stress due to uncertainty, business owners can overcome resistance by offering support, coaching, and transitional time (i.e., grace period) to allow the employees to acclimate to the change at a reasonable, not a frantic pace. This facilitation enables employees time to adjust to the new initiative without feeling immediate pressure to be perfect.

Negotiation: Sometimes, negotiation, bargaining, or deal making is the best way to overcome resistance to change. This give-and-take approach is dependent upon the idiosyncratic nature, risk, and value of the change itself, the affected members and procedures, as well as the associated time and cost parameters; all the while keeping in mind that a “win-win” negotiation is the goal.

Manipulation: Though unseemly and perhaps unethical, manipulation is one method for overcoming resistance. Using politics, co-optation, creative tension, inter-departmental conflict, and/or subterfuge, can indeed overcome resistance; albeit with an indelible price ultimately paid by damage done to the organizational culture.

Coercion: The most extreme method for eliminating resistance to change is forcing key employees to adopt the change or be threatened with dire consequences (e.g., demotion, termination, ridicule, reassignment). While this technique can quickly quash initial resistance, the latent effects are future passive-aggressive responses by the affected employees, and sustained anger, hostility, and disenchantment that will likely undermine future organizational success.

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 34 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.