Yield Sign

Don’t Yield to Resistance!

Change and its mirror image, resistance, is ubiquitous in the workplace.  The reasons for resistance are varied; they are driven by the business context for the change, the baggage each person involved in the change is carrying, and the macroeconomic environment.  Passing aside the “I just don’t like you” rationale for resistance there are many more actionable reasons for resistance. Some reasons people resist change are obvious (at least after examining how people are behaving) and some are less obvious (but still potent) without significant digging.  Some of the more pernicious reasons for resistance are:

Lack of Transparency – A significant amount of fear-based resistance is driven by a lack of transparency in the change process.  Lack of transparency generates:

  1.       A Fear of the Unknown – Workplace change almost always is perceived as having winners and losers.  When a person does not know what will happen as a consequence of a change they will not be able to predict where you will fall on the winner/loser continuum, which generates discontent and fear.
  2.      Job Insecurity – This is a specific variant of the fear of the future.  In many cases threats to job security impacts more than an individual.  Worries about job security often spill over and impact family and other important external relationships. I find a lingering or continual threat to job security to be more debilitating and more apt to spread than a specific transitory event.  
  3.       Lack of Involvement – Lack of involvement in planning and executing a change creates a void in knowledge that will be filled by something.  Gaps in knowledge are often filled with stories built on past bad experiences or behaviors seen the organization hence the fear of the unknown.

Risk Tolerance – Everyone has a different risk tolerance based on all sorts of psychological and contextual attributes.  A classic example used to illustrate risk tolerance is how an individual weighs their retirement plan (bonds or real estate reflect lower risk options while stocks and derivatives higher risk tolerance).  Risk tolerance and change tolerance are intertwined.  Those with higher risk tolerance will evaluate change more positively because they are willing to risk the that the outcome to be good for them.

Poor Execution of Previous Changes – A history of doing change poorly can affect fear and risk tolerance towards the current and future change initiatives.  Many change initiatives are viewed as part of the change-of-the-week club.  A common joke one often hears in organizations where change programs have failed or been abandoned multiple times is, “if we keep our head down something else will come along and supersede this change.”

At the core of much resistance is fear.  Fear compounded by lack of transparency and past performance. In order to make change happen, fear needs to be understood and mitigated.   I am an avid reader of science fiction.  One of the relevant quotes from Frank Herbert, author of Dune (and many other books), is “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” Coaches need to have a toolbox of questions to help identify and help those around them recognize that they are fearful.  (Next: Questions to help identify resistance).