Change is uncomfortable for most—it’s normal for people to resist it.

In a recent advanced quality course, the subject of unsuccessful change implementation surfaced. Most people understand change is necessary for survival, but in this era, it is happening at an unprecedented—and what seems to be an almost vertical—rate. The bottom line, though, is that change is uncomfortable for most, and it is common for people to resist change.

The Best-Laid Plans…
Although well-defined and intentioned, improvement projects often lose focus once a solution is found. With the hard part seemingly done, why does the energy disappear, progress stall, and cynicism surface?

Naturally, organizations seek to discover why their best-laid plans have derailed. Their efforts typically focus on the problem of implementation, but often fail to consider how the proposed improvements would be integrated into their employees’ daily work. Once a solution is found, organizations tend to push the new process on the system and the workforce. As people come to grips with unfamiliar concepts, ideas and processes, it’s not uncommon for those who work within the system to become skeptics, procrastinators or even active resisters.

Those who study human behavior discover a tension within many individuals who suffer an internal conflict. On one hand, people want to improve their lives, but at the same time, they want a life that is stable and without chaos; therein lies one of the primary sources of the problem. Many organizations have a history of unsuccessful change efforts, which causes some to become cynical and resistant to change due to fear and anxiety.

Fear and anxiety are natural responses to change, but can be addressed with openness. Organizations must create a culture in which people can speak their minds without fear of reprisal. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, generally recognized as one of the greatest quality experts of the 20th century, stressed that management must drive out fear in the workplace so everyone can work effectively.

Organizations must understand the needs of their workforce and the underlying reasons for their resistance. In fact, organizations should look upon this resistance as an opportunity to “get it right.” Many times, resistance to change is a signal that something is amiss, or that mistakes might have been made. Careful analysis, therefore, is required before forcing a change upon the workforce, as this only brings about greater resistance and seldom succeeds.

Failed change means lost opportunities, competitive vulnerability, reduced productivity, decreased quality, lost revenues, higher turnover, elevated absentee rates and increased employee cynicism. Failed change can also create a hostile and toxic culture in which resistance becomes the normal reaction to change. There is likely no business case that justifies moving forward until the resistance is appropriately addressed.

Overcoming Resistance
Once there is clear understanding of the reasons for resistance, organizations must take steps to address those issues. These steps would be specific to the situation, but might include the following:

  1. Fully understand the very nature of the resistance. Sometimes that is technological, but often it is human-based. People are uncomfortable with change, so organizations need to make participants comfortable and convert them into willing partners.
  2. Communicate the need for change. The biggest problem voiced in many employee surveys is lack of adequate communication. Management must ensure that information relative to impending change is continuously communicated but adapted to the message and audience. Focus on the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) message with clarity.
  3. Get people involved early and often. Resistance drops off in proportion to the involvement of participants. One of my early mentors told me not to expect 100-percent support from any individual who was not personally involved in a change that affected his/her work. It’s not physically impossible to involve everyone directly, but setting up networks to reach out to as many people as possible is the next best thing.
  4. Create opportunities for smaller but meaningful change. Nothing breeds success like success. Ensure that initial efforts are focused on areas where success and payoff are highly probable. This can win allies and soften resistance.
  5. Provide support for change. Allow employees to voice concerns and talk with others who have gone through similar changes. Provide reassurance that support will be available throughout the change effort.
  6. Be flexible and patient. Change is tumultuous, with many ebbs and flows. There may be challenges, but most can be effectively dealt with through patience, understanding and flexible implementation strategies.

In cases of significant change, there are people at all levels who just won’t be convinced; no amount of cajoling, communication or persuasion will “win” them over. They may or may not be vocal, but such people can be toxic to any improvement effort. It may not be comfortable to do, but they should be moved out of the way or their efforts redirected. It’s for their benefit, but more importantly, for the benefit of the organization and their customers.

Remember that the only person in this world who truly likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. Change is often desirable, frequently necessary and seldom embraced, but always inevitable. Everyone must find a way to deal with it effectively. iBi