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Overcoming Resistance to Change
Everything you need to Know to turn Change Resistance into Acceptance
Change is an inevitable part of organizational growth and innovation. Whether it's the adoption of a new technology, a shift in strategic direction, or a change in leadership, it is a constant feature of today's dynamic business environment. However, as any seasoned manager would probably confirm, guiding a team through periods of significant change is rarely a straightforward task, especially when this team is made of engineers. In fact, while resistance to change can be found in all teams, regardless of their professional focus, engineering teams may present a unique set of challenges for the following reasons:
Specialized Skills: engineers know a lot about their specific field, so they might resist changes that make them learn something new.
Proven Methods: engineers trust what has worked in the past and might doubt changes that haven't been tested yet.
Risk Avoidance: because mistakes in engineering can have big consequences, engineers may resist changes they see as risky.
Precision: engineers work needs to be very accurate, so they may resist changes that could introduce uncertainty.
Coordination: engineering work often requires teamwork. If a change could mess up this team dynamic, engineers might resist it.
Despite my leadership role, I'm an engineer at hearth and in more than 20 years of experience, I had to deal with resistance to change from several perspectives:
As an employee, where I embodied the resistance firsthand.
As an entrepreneur, where the changes I introduced faced pushback.
As a Director in a large organization, where I was tasked with delivering changes wanted by stakeholders, which faced resistance from my team.
In each scenario, the manager's role was fundamental in successfully navigating the storm of change. Using these different perspectives, in this essay I will try to shed some light on:
🧩 Understanding Resistance to Change
⚠️ The risks of challenging the Status Quo
🚀 How to Deliver the Change
💡 Practical Strategies for Overcoming Resistance to Change
We have lot to cover today, so let's begin!
🧩 Understanding Resistance to Change
Before you can lead your team through the journey of change, you need to get why people resist it. Knowing why this happens, how it shows up in a team, and the different steps in the change process is a really important starting point for managers.
Why Resistance to Change Occurs
Resistance to change springs from a variety of sources, but fear is often the main driver. This fear could be of the unknown, as change naturally disrupts our preference for predictability. Fear of loss can also be powerful, as changes often mean moving away from established norms, routines, or statuses, which could potentially put someone's job, social relationships, or comfort zones at risk. Additionally, trust, plays a critical role. When employees distrust the motivations behind a change or have little confidence in its successful implementation, resistance is a typical reaction.
Understanding these reasons provides managers with a basis for addressing resistance. By recognizing and understanding these fears, managers can start to deal with resistance in a helpful way, making the process of change go more smoothly.
How Resistance Manifests in a Team
Resistance to change isn't always clear or easy to see; it can often be more tricky to spot. It may reveal itself through a decline in productivity or an increase in absenteeism (which in a remote environment could be even harder to spot). There may be an observable reduction in participation during team meetings, increased levels of cynicism, or a spread of rumors within the team. Alternatively, resistance may manifest as a reluctance to adopt new procedures or practices.
Identifying these signs early on can empower managers to address issues before they escalate into larger problems. By dealing with these possible issues early on, managers can stop resistance from starting and becoming a big problem for change.
The Change Curve and Its Different Steps
The change curve, also known as the Kubler-Ross Change Curve, is a model used to understand the emotional responses to change in oneself or in a work setting. The model was originally developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying," where she described the five stages of pain experienced by terminally ill patients. It was later adapted to apply to personal change and business change scenarios.
The curve is usually presented in a series of stages that individuals or teams pass through in reaction to a significant change. These stages include:
🙈 Denial: initial shock and denial of the change. People often resist the change and may feel overwhelmed or anxious.
🤬 Anger: feelings of frustration and anger typically follow denial. This is often characterized by individuals questioning the need for change and resistant behaviors.
🤝 Bargaining: in this stage, individuals may try to negotiate or bargain to avoid the impact of change. This is often a defense mechanism to postpone the inevitable.
😞Depression: as the reality of the change begins to set in, people may feel low, isolated, and depressed. The energy levels of individuals and teams might be quite low at this stage.
👍Acceptance: Finally, people begin to accept the change, exploring what the new situation is, and finding ways to move forward.
While the original stages are only five, in the business context the change curve is often expanded with other intermediate steps. I also added three of them that I observed many times when a huge change occurred:
🧐 Curiosity: after the depression stage, if you've done a good job as a manager in explaining things and guiding the change in the right way, your team will start to show some interest. From what I've seen, this is when people start to accept the change.
💪 Challenge: in the challenge stage, even though they've started accepting the change, people are still not fully on board and start questioning the change. But, they do this in a more constructive way.
🎉 Enthusiasm: this is another stage that I've seen a lot, especially with engineers. After people have accepted the change and fully embraced it, they start to get excited about it and begin defending this new way of doing things. This is when the cycle completes... well, until the next change happens 😀
With a grasp of these stages, managers can craft appropriate communication strategies and provide the necessary support at each step of the journey.
⚠️ The Risks of Challenging the Status Quo
While changes are both necessary and beneficial for any team or organization, they often come with risks, especially if the change is not well-managed. It's crucial to understand these risks in advance and be prepared for them.
Losing People: this is perhaps the most significant risk when implementing changes within a team or organization. Even if you follow all best practices during the change process, there's always a chance that some people won't accept the change and will choose to leave. It's unfortunate, but it's part of the process.
Productivity Loss: if a change is not implemented correctly and understood by everyone, productivity can suffer. Uncertainty can lead to a loss of enthusiasm, which in turn can impact energy levels and overall performance.
Loss of Trust in Leadership: in the case of significant changes, there's a high possibility that your leadership will be questioned. This can be particularly frustrating when these changes are organization-wide, and you, as a manager or leader, are not the main person driving these changes.
Increased Stress: even the smallest and most well-accepted changes can be stressful. Altering the status quo requires effort and can lead to increased fatigue among team members.
Failure to Deliver Expected Results: there's always the risk that the change won't deliver the improvements or benefits that were anticipated, potentially leaving the team or organization worse than before.
Each of these risks underlines the importance of careful planning, clear communication, and thoughtful implementation when it comes to managing change in a team or organization.
🚀 How to Deliver the Change
Implementing change is like constructing a building; a robust blueprint is essential. Here, Lewin's Change Management Model could become handy, providing a tried-and-tested framework for instigating, managing, and solidifying change.
Lewin's Change Management Model
Lewin's Change Management Model is a simple yet effective framework proposed by psychologist Kurt Lewin (also father of Force Field Analysis) for managing and understanding change in an organization. The model presents change as a three-stage process:
Unfreeze: just like you can't reshape a block of ice without melting it first, Lewin argues that change requires the status quo's dissolution. The 'unfreezing' stage involves dismantling current beliefs, behaviors, and practices to pave the way for new ones. It requires challenging established norms and creating an awareness that change is necessary.
Change: once the old ways have been 'unfrozen,' we enter the 'change' stage. It's during this phase that the actual transition occurs. New attitudes and behaviors are adopted, and new ways of working are formed.
Refreeze: after the change has been implemented, the 'refreezing' stage serves to cement the new status quo. The newly adopted practices become normalized, and the team regains its stability.
Lewin's three-stage model also provides a roadmap to address resistance at each stage of change.
Unfreeze: clearly communicate why the change is necessary. Foster an environment open to dialogue and feedback. A strong case for change can melt away initial resistance.
Change: guide the team through the transition phase. Provide resources and training, and ensure ongoing communication to keep everyone on board. Celebrating small victories can boost morale and maintain momentum.
Refreeze: once the change has been implemented, reinforce the new behaviors and practices. Recognizing and rewarding those who adopt the change can foster a climate of acceptance and further push the new ways of working.
It's important to note that although this model presents change as a linear process, in reality, as we observed in the change curve, the experience of change can often be more complex and non-linear. Still, in my opinion Lewin's model provides a helpful framework for thinking about change in an organizational context.
💡 Strategies for Overcoming Resistance
Now that we know how resistance to change works, what are the risks and how to deliver changes, it's time to see some strategies to overcome or at least mitigate this resistance.
It might seem obvious, but it's important to remember that resistance is a typical response during any change. As a leader or manager, it's your job to anticipate it and accept it as part of the process. Resistance isn't always a negative sign - in fact, it can indicate that your team is cohesive and takes pride in their achievements. So, always keep this in mind. Instead of viewing resistance as a roadblock, think of it as a natural part of the change journey.
Navigate the Change Curve
We've already discussed the change curve as a way to understand the various phases of change. Knowing these stages helps managers to offer the right type of assistance at the right moment.
During denial, anger, and bargaining: communication is vital. Share detailed information about the change, respond to questions, and give your team time to digest the information.
During depression: be there for your team, listen to their worries, and coach those who are having a hard time coming to terms with the change.
During curiosity, challenge, acceptance, and enthusiasm: is when your leadership and management skills really come into play. In this key phase, where the team is starting to accept the change, it's important for you to provide clear directions, reinforce new behaviors, and celebrate success to encourage the acceptance of the change.
Communication: The Key to Awareness
Clear, consistent, and transparent communication can significantly reduce the fear and uncertainty associated with change.
Clearly articulate the reasons behind the change, explaining the benefits it will bring to the team and the organization as a whole.
Encourage open dialogue. Allowing employees to voice their thoughts, fears, and suggestions creates a two-way communication channel that fosters understanding and acceptance.
Provide regular updates on the change process. Keeping everyone informed of progress, setbacks, and adjustments helps maintain trust and engagement.
Involvement: The Antidote to Fear
Engaging employees in the change process can be a powerful antidote to resistance. When people feel involved in the change, it increases their sense of control, reducing fear and fostering acceptance.
Involve employees in the planning and decision-making processes where possible.
Encourage feedback and suggestions. Showing that you value their opinions can boost morale and build their acceptance.
Delegate responsibilities related to the change to foster a sense of ownership and engagement.
Training: Equipping Your Team for Change
Training is vital to equipping your team with the necessary skills and knowledge to adapt to the change.
Identify any skills gaps that the change may expose and provide targeted training to bridge these gaps.
Supply the resources and tools necessary to support the new ways of working.
Facilitate continuous learning and development opportunities to ensure the team keeps up with ongoing changes.
Give your team the necessary time to adapt. This point is particularly important, as managers can become impatient when changes occur, especially if they're under pressure from stakeholders. Always remember, you're there to support your team.
Support: Aiding the Transition
Providing emotional and practical support can ease the transition and encourage acceptance of change.
Exercise patience and understanding, recognizing that adapting to change takes time and that individuals will progress at different speeds.
Offer practical assistance with new tasks and responsibilities.
Encourage a supportive team culture where everyone feels heard, valued, and comfortable seeking help when needed.
Leading a team through change is not an easy job. It needs a lot of patience and a deep understanding of all the tricky parts involved. As managers, you're like the captain of a ship during a storm. Even if your team pushes back, with a good plan, friendly communication, involvement, and constant support, you can guide your team from being against the change to accepting it.
While the idea of dealing with push back can seem scary, it's also a great chance to learn and grow. By taking on this challenge and getting good at managing change, you can build a team culture that's ready to adapt and bounce back, moving your team towards a future full of creativity and innovation.
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✌️ That’s all folks
That's all for today! As always, I would love to hear from my readers (and if you've made it this far, you're definitely one of the bravest). Please don't hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn and send a message. I’m happy to get in touch with new people and I always respond to everyone!