As the song says, “the times they are a-changing.” But as most leaders know, it can be difficult to manage change in the workplace and overcome resistance.
Humans are looking different these days. Many of them are wearing these strange face coverings, which makes me wonder if they’ve been biting other people or chewing on things they’re not supposed to. (I once had to wear a “cone of shame” to prevent me from licking a particularly sensitive spot.)
Whatever the reason, this change in appearance makes dogs nervous. Dogs, in general, don’t like change. We like our environment to be familiar and our people to be predictable. Dogs revel in routine.
Most people are also resistant to change. According to life coach Jim Earley, when people are forced to embrace change, “10 percent will respond like James Bond, 10 percent will respond like Moe Howard from the Three Stooges, and 80 percent will do nothing at all.” In fact, a book entitled Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life, found only one out of nine people will make lifestyle changes even after they’re told they could die if they don’t! (And people think dogs are stubborn!)
Why People Resist Change in the Workplace
Okay, so a lot of people would rather risk death than change their diet, exercise habits, etc., but what about changes at work? Some really smart people (like from Harvard) have researched the reasons why people resist change in the workplace. They found that there are 10 basic reasons that employees rebel against change.
It’s important for leaders to understand these reasons for resistance in order to manage change in the workplace effectively:
1. Loss of control.
Change can make people feel that they’ve lost control over their jobs/roles. It may feel like a loss of autonomy (the way I feel about leashes) or a power shift. Good leaders will allow employees to be part of the planning process and give them room to make choices.
2. Fear of the unknown.
Some people (and dogs) love adventure (like running through the woods chasing raccoons), while others avoid anything unfamiliar or potentially scary. They would rather be “safe” than risk the unknown. To overcome this inertia, leaders should create a clearly outlined process for change with defined steps and a timetable.
3. Surprise anxiety.
Personally, I love surprises—finding food that someone dropped on the ground can make my day! But not everyone likes the element of surprise. They like to know what’s coming. Leaders can help these folks and manage change in the workplace by not springing major transformations on them. Providing hints that changes are being made and keeping employees updated throughout the process can reduce stress.
4. Change overload.
Remember I said that dogs are creatures of habit? Well, so are many people. If leaders are constantly changing things (i.e., change for the sake of change), employees can feel confused and distracted, as well as constantly wary about the future (as in, do these people really know what they’re doing?). Leaders should avoid making too many changes, especially all at once.
5. Loss of face.
When changes in the workplace involve a shift in direction or a change in processes, the people who were responsible for the previous path or practices can feel that they made a mistake. Leaders can help these people feel better by emphasizing what worked well and, where possible, keeping parts of the system that were successful. Focus on how the business/marketplace has evolved, and therefore requires changes, instead of blaming people for things that didn’t work in the past.
6. Feeling stupid.
I once ate a whole bag of Cheetos and then proceeded to be sick all over the house (not to mention the embarrassing orange stain on my muzzle). I felt pretty stupid and that’s not a good feeling. Likewise, people don’t like to feel dumb. When change involves new technology or skill sets, employees may question their ability to adapt and feel incompetent. Leaders should invest in training and support to help people overcome these fears.
7. More work.
Let’s face it, most change involves extra work, at least until everyone is up to speed. If employees are already working long hours, introducing a new system, software, or other procedural changes can put added strain on employees who are already stressed. If possible, leaders should try to assign employees to focus exclusively on implementing the changes. Also, be sure to acknowledge and thank employees for the extra efforts required. (A pat on the head can go a long way.) Emphasize that once the changes are implemented, the result will be less stress.
8. The domino effect.
Change, no matter how small, is rarely isolated. Most changes have a domino effect in your organization. Who will the changes impact and how? To manage change in the workplace, leaders should consider the full impact of the changes and ask employees for input on how to handle these transitions. For instance, the sales department may have the best ideas on how to handle the effect on customers, while the human resources department can offer suggestions on informing/training employees at different levels.
9. Past resentments.
If your company has been in business a long time, there may be a history of changes that didn’t work out very well. People may harbor resentment for the time the company reorganized and let employees go, or the new system that was introduced to streamline work but only made things worse. If this is the case, leaders should recognize past mistakes or at least acknowledge these situations and offer reassurance as to how these changes will be managed differently.
My owner threw out my favorite stuffed rabbit. Sure, it was ratty, dirty and missing both ears, but I loved that rabbit. He replaced it with a new toy, which is still sitting in the corner untouched. The real problem was that he didn’t tell me he was going to throw my rabbit out—one day it was just gone! Now I guard my favorite toys with my life. If changes in your organization are going to result in job cuts, the best thing leaders can do is be honest and fair and not prolong the inevitable.
It can be difficult to manage change in the workplace. As a leader, you can’t always make people comfortable with changes, but you can do things to minimize the discomfort. Some people will go kicking and screaming (or growling) into the new environment, while others will adapt smoothly. Be sure to keep communication open during the process and get feedback from employees before, during and after changes are put in place.
And don’t underestimate the power of praise and a few well-timed treats!
- Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life, by Alan Deutschman, 2007.
- Jim Earley, Owner and CEO of Trailblazing Coaching.
- “Ten Reasons People Resist Change,” by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business Review.