Leaders may get frustrated with employees who are resistant to change, believing the workers are just being obstinate. This may cause leaders to issue “my way or the highway” directives, further alienating employees and delaying the changes that need to be made.
But what leaders need to understand is that humans are wired to look at anything unfamiliar as a threat, even if that doesn’t make much sense to a manager who only wants to change a system or process, says Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist.
“It’s the same reason why someone will take the same route into work, even if there is roadwork,” she says. “It will make them late to work, but they’ll do it even if there is another route.”
There are likely to be a wide range of responses to change, and managers must make the time to deal with each one, David says.
“Managers must realize that people will be anxious when they hear about change. There will be fear, loss and sadness. They will have real concerns about whether they’re going to end up a victim,” she says. “They may already be overloaded with work and this will just add to their stress.”
If managers don’t make time to deal with employees on an individual basis and ignore the undercurrents of stress about change, the failure to support workers can be “huge,” says Catherine Adenle, head of communications for Elsevier in the United Kingdom.
“As an organization while your competition can copy virtually every other advantage you have, they cannot copy your people or the results they achieve for your organization,” Adenle says. “If your employees are supported during change, implementation will be seamless and swift. Remember, organizations don’t change, people do.”
Adenle says the biggest mistake managers make when implementing change is overlooking the readiness of workers for change and not having a system ready that enables the transition.
“Organizations that are clued up about change are aware of the importance of involving and supporting employees during change. In such organizations, usually, they engage employees and other relevant stakeholders from the onset to help develop a clear vision of desired change outcomes,” Adenle explains. “
In addition, they ensure that there is integrated ongoing change communications and a solid change management strategy, along with strong employee motivations, Adenle says.
Davis says it’s important for managers to rein in any frustration they may feel about employee resistance to change. “Keep in mind that as a manager, you’ve probably known about the change for a while,” she says. “In the beginning, they’re going to shut down. But you just keep talking and talking to them.”
Adenle says that using “positive deviance” can help get employees on board with change. Under this process, organizations tap into the collective wisdom of employees to define and solve problems. Next, “appreciative inquiry” is used to ask “unconditional positive questions” that help strengthen the company’s ability to “capture, anticipate and heighten positive potentials,” she says.
The advantage of using appreciate inquiry is to turn the conversation from disapproving and disparaging into one where employees talk about “discovery, dream and design,” Adenle says.
Adds David: “Sometimes managers will get into this very black and white thinking, where it’s either ‘you’re for us’ or ‘you’re against us.’ But change process is a journey, and people have to get used to it. Even if you’re talking about why it’s logical, they still have to experience it emotionally.”
When using appreciate inquiry, managers can encourage employees to talk about past and present achievements, strengths and values, and how that can be directly linked to the change agenda. Further, such involvement methods boost collaboration and encourage dialogue, Adenle says.
“As rightly said by W. Alton James, ‘The man who gets the most satisfactory results is not always the man with the most brilliant single mind, but rather the man who can best coordinate the brains and talents of his associates,’” Adenle says.
David says that managers should help employees talk about the opportunities that may arise from the changes, and what transitions may look like. “You can help someone reconstruct a narrative that is doable for them,” she says. “Everyone is going to go through this differently. Some high achievers may have had an inkling change was coming, while someone else may be hit out of the blue.”
For organizations seeking ways to be more supportive of employees experiencing change, Adenle recommends:
In her new book, “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life,” David says that in this world of constant change, more people need to learn how to develop the ability to calm down instead of stressing out about change.
“Managers can help people through changes by responding when they see employees struggling,” she says, “They can simply say something like, ‘It seems like you’re feeling anxious here. Let’s talk about it.’”
Managers don’t have to become armchair psychologists in order to be supportive of employees, but it does mean there needs to be “real conversation” and ensuring that employee concerns are addressed individually, David says.
“Sometimes your presence is enough. You can’t ask people to bottle up their emotions, because they’re going to come out somewhere,” David says. “But once you let people know they’re in a safe place to talk, then their demands are going to become less because they’re going to feel heard and seen and understood.”
Both David and Adenle say it’s important that leaders be patient and understanding with employees going through change and not jump to reassigning people or even firing those who don’t seem to be changing fast enough.
“You can’t have ‘change by checklist,’ because that’s not really engaging with people,” David says. “You have to see people with people.”
Adenle says while you don’t want to “spoon-feed” employees, an open-door policy can go a long way to helping employees accept change and get on with the business at hand. However, leaders must be sure that employees understand their performance standards and help identify the “critical” make or break aspects of their contribution during change. “Anything outside this must be swiftly addressed,” she says.
David says that employees who grumble about change aren’t the real problem, because “it shows that the person cares enough to complain.
“There’s still a chance to re-engage them,” David says. “It’s the ones who become very passive and show a sort of internal resignation that may be tougher. That’s an early warning signal that it may be tougher to re-engage these people.”
Says Adenle: “Resistance to organizational change is rarely irrational. Employees resist change efforts from a perspective that makes perfect sense to them.
“However, if an employee is highly resistant to change, a leader can set some time aside for a one-to-one support meeting for the employee to find out why, “Adenle says. “Once a leader knows the reason, they should join the employee to design an enabling plan.”
This plan will help speed up the transition and “take care of the risks” such an employee associates with change, with the leader providing the necessary time to move through the transition at his or her own pace, but with ‘constant firm support and guidance,” she says.
If the employee remains actively disengaged and becomes disruptive, then Adenle must set limits and discuss the consequences.
“If nothing changes, the leader could make an alternative arrangement to help the employee move on and find another job,” Alende says. “Anyone that cannot change will be left behind.”
This may seem like nothing but a giant headache to some managers who feel they’ve already got enough on their plate without having to shepherd recalcitrant employees through a change initiative. But experts like Alende say that supporting workers during such times can’t be shoved aside.
“Employees feeling supported during change will lead to increased productivity, promote sustainability, employees’ wellness and allow an organization to achieve higher levels of output. It’s generally what energizes, maintains, and controls behavior,” she says.