We have typically promoted three types of resistance to change: fear, embarrassment, and loss. These have their roots in people’s innate desire to be successful. They are probably built-in very deeply to our survival mechanisms from when being successful meant staying alive.
Fear deals with uncertainty about the future. A person may realize that there is potential to do things better than they are currently doing it. But if the way they are doing it isn’t getting them fired and they aren’t completely certain they can be at least as successful in a new way, they will resist the change until their fear is addressed.
The important thing about addressing fear is that fear is in the perspective of the person who is facing the change that matters, not the people initiating the change. Historically, we keep doing what we have always done because it kept us alive.
Embarrassment deals with admitting that the way we have done things isn’t the best way to do it. People have a very strong drive to be right and to be appreciated. When you point out that they aren’t doing things the best way, they tend to become defensive. You don’t understand how things got that way. It sure is easy to come in after the fact and point out the problems. You must think they are stupid if you think they don’t understand the flaws in how they do work.
Embarrassment is dealt with by letting people tell their story. Let them know it is clear that they made the best choices they could over time. Its ok that things got the way they are because the got the way they are.
Loss is much broader. People have made an investment into developing the competence that they have been rewarded for and that gives them influence. Any of these points can be an emotional sticking point, loss of investment, competence, rewards, or influence.
Explaining how things will be better for the business on the new .NET platform doesn’t help the guy who spent the last 20 years becoming the absolute expert in the COBOL application. Explaining the focusing benefits of social marketing techniques doesn’t make the sales person who spent the last 20 years developing relationship more valuable. The manager who has thrived in chaos and been rewarded for it will resist the effort to put in standard processes.
When we change the way we do things, we can’t replace the investment made by individuals in developing the competence that has led to reward and influence. We pull that out from under them. Loss is the most difficult challenge to deal with. We can commit to supporting a new investment, although it is difficult to replace 20 years of experience. People want to be valued. Try treating them with a great deal of respect and recognition for what they have accomplished. This will help with the transition, but won’t necessarily set them up for a complimentary level of success in the new way of things.
The bottom line is that overcoming resistance to change is critical to the success of most strategic changes. Typical change management approaches teach us to communicate, communicate, and communication again. But, notice how of the sources of resistance are all at a personal level. Explaining how the change will benefit the business, or the manager, or even the customer isn’t sufficient.
Next time you are facing resistance to change, don’t push – listen. The person resisting understands the benefit to the business. It is fear, embarrassment, or loss that is motivating the resistance. Often it is a combination. Spending time understanding and addressing resistance at its root may seem like an unneccassary investment. However, the investment is almost always less than the cost of the resistance itself.