Change management and resistance to change are often written about. A Harvard Business Review post recaps the typical top reasons why people resist change. These include perceived loss of control, fear of being able to keep up once change is in place, and rejecting the notion of ‘more work’ added to current duties. Preexisting damaged relationships that make adoption of anything suggested by certain folks not palatable to others may also be a factor. Where management is concerned, any of these potential issues raises the specter of another failed attempt at needed change.
I want to add my own $.02 here. In discussing change, seldom is an explicit distinction made as to problems that may arise from the attempted implementation of a series of changes. In my experience, it is unlikely that only one change will occur — in isolation, so to speak — and so the time aspect of when do several, possibly related changes come to pass and how far apart in time from one another they are is important. As well, the consistency aspect between the goals of successive changes is something to think about. These considerations are the main focus of this post.
First, resistance may increase due to the sheer pace at which upcoming changes are announced. Appetite for change diminishes if enough time is not allowed for things to settle down and for any benefits that have been promised by management to be validated and internalized by staff. It all starts sounding like a flavor ‘du jour’ and generates skepticism.
Push-back from the ranks may intensify when the leadership, under pressure to catch up to competitors, engages in complex transformation efforts which it then tries to shoehorn into compressed time-frames. This is a bit like wanting to go from couch potato to fitness wonder by doing one’s quota of yearly push-ups in one day, or, for those who do resistance training at the gym, increasing repetitions, adding weights, and reducing rest and recovery time between sets all at once. The likely result is injury and a mental block rejecting any further effort in this direction, certainly not the expected improvement. So, the takeaway here is that time is needed to grasp, internalize, and eventually adopt a change in a way that makes it positive and self-sustainable. One cannot force enthusiasm for something new, as it has to come from the inside. It is a process, not an event, and processes take time. Think marinade, not fast food.
A second reason for resistance is the consistency and ‘smoothness’ required between consecutive changes for their acceptance to increase. As mentioned, it is unlikely that change is communicated from management as a ‘one off’ directive. There will be one or more follow-ups. Indeed, change is usually framed within some strategic context — a journey, if you will — to bigger and better things. If enough time is not allowed for matters to stabilize and for all stakeholders to reap benefits, management may be tempted to jump the gun and ‘try something else.’ This new attempt at a fix may not align with the previous change, and in fact its departure from the earlier effort may even be marketed as desirable, adding to uncertainty and the perception of mixed messaging.
As a side note, surveys are often circulated to gauge the receptivity to changes being implemented. The truth is that, if changes are timed too closely together, there is simply no opportunity for stakeholders to form a valid opinion as to whether a desirable improvement has occurred. They are too busy trying to incorporate new habits and let go of the old ones. Surveys also tend to be circulated too soon after an event, which does not help.
The third reason for resistance to change is managerial credibility. or rather the lack of it. This ties into the previous theme of reversals and mixed messaging. A track record is what people remember, and according to it they may decide to get on board or not. Once credibility is lost, through amateurish efforts that were not thought out sufficiently thoroughly and were rushed into, that somehow left employees feeling coerced, or that responded more to private agendas than to a true need for improvement, it is very hard to get it back. Resistance can range from passive stonewalling to something involving more activism, and may complicate matters beyond the scope of the planned changes.
As management reverses decisions more than once and shows increasing tentativeness, the rank and file easily spot the ongoing thrashing, and general confusion grows. What’s worse, the skepticism of those who were either on-board to begin with or on the fence may well increase to the point where they join the naysayers. At this point, the opportunity for change is all but lost.
To avoid this situation, great care must be taken in trying not to hand down half-baked ideas and mandates, and to always assess what time frames are realistic, something where previous experience is important. Management also should constantly solicit input from the people in the trenches and genuinely take it into consideration, so any redesign of the change is collaborative and stakeholders ease towards shared goals rather than fight each other every step of the way. This requires intellectual honesty, mutual respect, and a healthy dose of humility. Take the time to do things right, and they will not have to be redone or filed under ‘fail.’