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How To Reduce Employee Resistance To Change Initiatives

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Today’s work environment is constantly changing. Leaders of large and small companies are looking for ways to stay relevant as fears of an economic slowdown put greater pressure on maintaining revenue, while also mitigating the risk of inflation. Stakeholders are putting pressure on companies to deliver more value. Employees are looking for more pay, better benefits, and greater flexibility at work. Customers are looking for more customization, new services, faster delivery, and cheaper prices. Investors are looking for consistent returns, better governance, social responsibility, and improved sustainability. All these expectations are creating pressure on leaders to change how businesses operated. To maintain profitability, customer experience, employee morale, and investor satisfaction leaders must make bold and sometimes unpopular changes. As a leader you play a key role in helping employees understand why change is necessary, along with the risk of being stagnant in today’s highly volatile environment. The better you communicate why change is necessary and how it will benefit them, the more likely they will be to embrace the change.

People are resistant to change when it challenges their sense of self or their values, especially when that change is not their choice. Think about a time when a positive change happened at work. Your company gave you an additional holiday or a process changed that solved a problem you were experiencing. You accepted the change quickly, and it might have even energized you because you saw benefit from the change. Your identity and values were unchallenged, and the extra day off or process improvement aligned with your aspirational self. Now think of a time when a change happen that you resisted. You had to take on a new assignment that caused you to work more hours which cut into your personal time, or your company moved away from a work from home policy that you enjoyed. This created negative emotions, distracted you from your purpose and was perceived as being a threat to who you are, and who you want to be. When changes happen to us that we view as a threat to our values or identity we resist.  As a leader looking to help people process a big change, it is important to help employees reframe the change from being a threat, to being an opportunity. When they can see the benefits, and understand how the change aligns with their values, and supports who they want to be, they will be more likely to embrace the change.  

First, leaders must recognize that no matter how small you feel a change is, there is a chance that the change will feel significant to your employees.

The reason for this is related to the differences in your scope of responsibility. As the leader you have a different vantage point in the organization. Your focus is on the entirety of your organization, while your employees are focused on a smaller segment of the business, and potentially just their role. Since the size of their role and responsibility is smaller, any change has a bigger impact on their business. In addition, what may seem like a minor change from your vantage point, may require considerable time and effort to execute as it moves down an organization. For this reason, leaders need to be purposeful about the changes they make. Every time you make an unwanted change in your organization you erode employee comfort, trust and sense of power. This can impact morale and have negative impacts to productivity and engagement. In today’s environment change fatigue is a real risk. Change fatigue occurs when multiple minor changes add up and overwhelm an individual or group. For this reason, it is important to pay attention to both the size and frequency of change initiatives.

Second, leaders must frame the change as a win for employees.

As I stated earlier, processing change is all about perspective. If a change is seen as an opportunity to improve the employee work environment, they are more likely to accept it, even if the change requires a lot of work. In contrast, if changes are perceived by employees as threats to their values or wellbeing, you will meet resistance especially if the changes are viewed to be significant. The key to helping employees reframe the change is to give them perspective. The more you can help your employees to zoom out from their perspective and understand how the change will help them either now or in the future, the more likely they will see it as an opportunity for improvement vs a threat to their status quo.

=Zooming out sometimes requires employees to look beyond the pain of the moment and understand that greater pain that will come if change does not occur. A great analogy for this is the pain associated with road construction. As a driver, it can be painful to sit through the increased traffic created by road closures linked to highways expansions. In the moment, drivers may absolutely hate the impact of the road work and the pain associated with longer commutes. In hindsight, once the project is over, most drivers are extremely grateful to have the increase in lanes especially as they realize the additional traffic issues that would have come from not expanding the highway. When the business case for change is presented, leaders must help employees zoom out beyond the current moment and look at the benefits that will come over time.

Finally, involving your employees early in the change management process shows them that you respect and value their opinion and that you have their best interest in mind as you determine and roll out change initiatives.

By giving your employees visibility to strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in your business, you help them to understand the business case for change. This can help to motivate employees to support change because they better understand the potential benefits of acting, along with the risk of doing nothing. As you solicit their opinion on potential solutions, you will improve your decision making because you will be more knowledgeable of potential solutions, better understand the risk, drawbacks, and trade-offs of your current thinking. When you share change implementation plan with your employees and solicit feedback, they can help to identify unconsidered obstacles, and design solutions to improve adoption rates. By including employees in the process, you increase trust, which lowers the perceived risk of change initiatives because employees understand why the change is happening, that you thought through alternative solutions and landed on the change that was best for the organization’s future.

Change can be difficult because of the wiring of our brains. When people do the same things repeatedly, thought patterns establish that help to build the construct of who we are as individuals. When you make a change in an employee's work environment, you disrupt their thought patterns. When the ask is mundane, the impact is small, and does not impact an employee's sense of self. When the change is viewed as positive, people are willing participants because they believe the change will bring them closer to being the person they want to be. When employees view change as a threat, they resist because they are asked to move away from being the person they want to be. If you want to have greater success influencing change with your employees, acknowledge that change can impact employees’ perception of self, help them to zoom out and see the bigger picture, and collaborate with them on the identification, ideation, and execution of change initiatives.


Dorian Cunion is an Executive Business Coach with your Path Coaching and Consulting. He specializes in coaching service for managers, executives and small business owner.

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