People & Human Resources

Why do people resist change?

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Expect staff to resist workplace change. By learning the symptoms and understanding the psychology of that resistance, managers can work to minimise it.

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Come back from Easter with a head full of plans? I have. There’s just that one problem: persuading staff – who are already working hard – to take on new ideas.

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Many people hate change, yet others look forward to it. Resistance to change is normal yet a very destructive thing. Some managers fail to recognise the symptoms of change as directly related to proposed or actual changes high staff turnover, conflict, lateness, mistakes, injuries, low morale and lowered productivity.

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If you understand the psychology of resistance you can plan to minimise it, and support your people and then have more hope of ensuring your people accept the changes.

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Reasons people resist change

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1. Old Habits. People like routine, it’s easy and familiar, and making a change can take a lot of energy. Although some people love experimentation and challenge, many hate it. <

If there is strong peer group pressure to stick to the status quo, it becomes difficult for individuals to act differently, to change. So force of habit will breed resistance.

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If you understand this, take time out to talk to staff, involve them and recognise how change will affect their “habits”.

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2. No Control. Most of us are independent in our private lives, making our own decisions, planning and accepting responsibility for the consequences, yet at work it can be the reverse. It’s understandable that many people become frustrated at the limited control they have in their jobs, and that when a change is imposed that sense of powerlessness and lack of control worsens. It’s the feeling that things are happening to us, rather than that we’re making them happen.

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Strategies to counteract this are to ask for suggestions, set up committees to plan and implement change, and invite staff to become involved in decisions where possible. Give back some control through this involvement

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3. Worn Out. Many people are worn out and tired of continual changes at work. It takes energy to learn new skills, adapt to new procedures, and change direction. It is common to become worn out when there is a lack of planning, a series of changes and poor experiences in the past (perhaps at a previous organisation). Maybe previous changes brought job losses, extra work or were abandoned abruptly.

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Business owners and managers need to know how their people feel and what likely reactions will come about as a result of proposed changes.

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4. Insecurity. Change causes insecurity about what will happen and how we will cope, and this insecurity can cause stress and anxiety. Often the anticipation is worse than the reality. It isn’t the change that causes the problem; it’s the uncertainty about the outcomes. Typical insecurities associated with change are fear of failure, fear of looking stupid, threat to skills, lack of information, or misinformation and rumours.

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Managers need to communicate and provide information. Yet often they don’t give the right information, at the right time to the right people. Some people withhold information deliberately, others unintentionally, while others don’t even know the full story themselves. <

5. Loss. Change often involves loss of some sort, maybe part of our role, maybe friends and colleagues, some benefits and incentives, possibly even our job. A relocation can create instant loss. Loss can lead to lowered self-esteem: we can feel that there is an implied criticism of how we were doing things in the past, that our performance was not really good enough. When we suffer a severe loss, it’s normal to go through shock, denial, anger, frustration and depression, before we finally accept. With loss we may need to provide counseling and outplacement services if the losses are major.

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Leaders and managers need to take the time to understand why their people are resistant, and provide the opportunity to talk and vent (one on one or in groups) and involve people in the future direction. This can be restricted in timeframe but will be more likely to lead to a successful change.

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Eve Ash is a psychologist and managing director of Seven Dimensions, and producer of the popular Ash.Quarry Productions video The Psychology of Resistance (A System of Change series) www.7dimensions.com.au

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