Employee resistance to changes in how businesses are organized and their work is conducted is legendary, and as old as the “modern” workplace — the Harvard Business Review first tackled this issue back in 1969.
When businesses introduce new project management tools, IT software, office policies, or roles and relationships, employees tend to chafe.
For organizations, this should be expected. As the writer Arnold Bennett once put it, “any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.”
Opposition to organizational change can take many forms. It can be quiet killers, such as refusing to use (or reluctantly and haphazardly using) new tools, or dips in morale and dedication that slow down projects and productivity. It can also be more overt, such as leaving the company altogether.
Of course, resistance is futile. Change happens to organizations whether the employees, or even their managers, like it or not. For one, new technology is rapidly altering how we work — we’re communicating, collaborating, and automating certain processes in new ways nearly every day.
But in addition, values and expectations of individuals are shifting as millennials assume the dominant place in the workforce, and leaders and managers are adopting different roles and perspectives — flat organizations lacking a traditional hierarchy, for example, have become en vogue.
The question remains: How to keep workers happy, productive, and loyal to the company when change comes from the top down? We talked to seven experts to get their tips and experiences on how to handle this critical period.
Communication is the most important aspect of guiding employees through a change in the workplace. Almost every expert we spoke to mentioned this fundamental, yet oft-overlooked step, and it’s practically a given in each the of the following tips.
1. Give the “why” of change
Perhaps communication is typically overlooked because companies don’t know how to communicate. As Margo McClimans, an executive coach and leadership development trainer at Coaching Without Borders, puts it: Give the “why”.
“It might feel obvious why you are reducing costs, moving offices, or changing software platforms, nevertheless, it is important to be explicit about why you are changing and what factors were taken into consideration,” McClimans says. “Wherever there is a lack of information, people will make things up, so you might as well make sure they are working with accurate assumptions.”
From there, create a dialogue to check in with your employees’ feelings about the changes you’ve implemented, and use it as a resource to cut off negative feelings before they grow out of hand.
By doing this, you’ll also be giving your employees a voice. Deloitte Insights notes that “the second-highest-rated issue in employee engagement was the organization’s willingness to ‘listen to an employee’s perspectives.’”
Moreover, when it comes to communication, the way you package your message can be immensely helpful in combating negativity.
Deborah Sweeney, the CEO of MyCorporation, says that when her company recently moved to use an online time tracking system for all employees, the messaging helped allay concerns.
“We messaged that this was an important part of overall business management and tracking and that as we were growing, it was critical to avoid any manual errors, mis-accounting or tracking and to be able to fall back on a tool in the event that there were any questions,” she says.
Your message should highlight the reasons for the changes, crafting a positive overall message in both your team meeting and in follow-ups. For Sweeney, the switch to a time tracking system was about accountability, commitment, and timeliness — not about micromanagement. People don’t want to feel like Big Brother is watching them, or that they’ll have to do extra work just to finish out their day and/or get paid.
“It went over well, honestly,” says Sweeney of the switch. “We can track easier, the insurance audit process is now much simpler and our team understands the importance of accountability.”
2. Emphasize what’s been successful in the past
Another interesting concept, floated by Lisa Sansom of LVS Consulting, is to point out all the things that are staying the same about the current workflow.
“When introducing changes, it’s important to acknowledge the successful past, and the uncertain future. It’s also important to mention what will not change, because that can help people feel more secure and see the change in context,” Sansom says. “In times of change, people can be fearful, which can make brains go into a defensive ‘fight or flight or freeze’ mode. When trusted leaders share what is not changing, then people can relax a bit and feel more confident and competent in their abilities to manage the change.”
3. Push, don’t pull, new information
Sansom also notes that there is a difference between “pushing” and “pulling” the new information, protocols, or methods out to employees, and that pushing is the preferred method here.
To “pull” in an employee is to give them a link to a website, or wiki, or other accessible place and expect them to visit it to learn about the project. But, sadly:
“Employees pretty much never go to those sites,” says Sansom. “Employees don’t think about it, they don’t remember to bookmark the site, they have enough else going on — employees are not going to go to your project page and learn about the changes unless they are on the project team and need that information to do their jobs.”
Instead, “push” the information out via newsletters, subscriptions, emails, and, of course, team meetings. Put the change right in front of people — don’t make them go looking for it.
4. Accept some disagreement for awhile
You might be familiar with the phrase “give up and win,” especially if you’re a parent. That’s a mindset you can adopt here, as well: If you accept that people will have issues with change, you’ll be better equipped to ride out that drop in productivity and return to normal.
“Accept a certain amount of disengagement for a while after the reality of the change has sunk in,” says McClimans. “We look to Dr. Kuhbler-Ross’ work on how people handle massive changes in their life to understand what happens to all of us in any major change situation. It is natural to experience denial, push-back, anger, and sadness before we can gradually accept the change. Companies and managers who allow time and space for these emotions will actually see that they go away sooner than [those] who discourage these emotions.”
5. Challenge people to “test their assumptions”
Research highlighted by Abby Fichtner, also known as The Hacker Chick, notes that people often have “hidden, competing” commitments that are holding us back from changing.
Those commitments cause us to dig in and avoid accepting new realities and mindsets — and not just employees, either, but those tasked with helping create the change, such as managers and leaders. Asking managers who don’t specialize in change management to facilitate change is asking them to step outside their comfort zone.
So test the assumptions of your employees and managers (do they only think about their work in a certain way?), and set expectations for what they should be accomplishing. Let them know that not succeeding in new roles and responsibilities isn’t a failure, that’s it a part of the process. If they assume otherwise, they may impede change without realizing it.
6. Invite participation and feedback
Speaking to the idea that change in the workplace often feels like something done to, around, or above employees, rather than with or for them, Heather Stagl, founder of Enclaria (which helps companies influence change at work), says that companies can avoid engendering this feeling by inviting participation.
“One of the main reasons people resist change is that they feel like they are a victim of it, instead of a participant in it. When change is imposed by someone else, people often react negatively, though not always overtly,” she says. “The best way to reduce resistance is to get people involved early in the process — naming the problem, solving the problem, and implementing the solution. If you can’t involve everyone, then at least ask for and listen to feedback, and give people some control over how the system is implemented.”
You may think your new way of doing things is the perfect solution, but until you hear from your employees on how it may or may not affect their workflow, mindset, or morale, how can you know for sure? Their input can be crucial in creating the true “perfect” solution.
7. Bring in, or build up, a change management expert
When you first started your business, it’s not likely that you built in a role for a change management expert. That kind of hire only comes with growth, success, and real need. So if the need is there, maybe you should address it appropriately.
“Most important,” says Laura Handrick of Fit Small Business, “is to bring a change management expert, whether from your HR team or as an external consultant to join the project team hip-to-hip. They’ll need to be included during all project planning phases, and often will serve as the person who oversees any training, communication and organizational restructuring work.”
This person, whether internal or external, will advise the leadership team and spearhead management planning.
“These tasks all need to be embedded into the project plan from the start, not added as an afterthought. Failure to do these things is the reason so many ERP projects fail, because you can’t implement policies one off,” says Handrick.
8. Make a game out of it
Finally, consider the possibility of actually having fun with change.
Cristian Rennella, VP of HR & CoFounder of oMelhorTrato.com, says that he made turned to “gamification” to make change more palatable.
“To reduce employee resistance to change we create games and the winners receive their corresponding prizes,” he says. “For example, the last time we implemented a change, was to move from our old project management tool to a totally new one.”
“The first 30 employees who started using it to manage their next projects, would receive a bonus on their next salary. And the next 30 employees, would receive a dinner for two people.”
To test the efficacy of this tactic, the company was divided in half: 50 percent of employees were introduced to the change in a traditional way, and the other 50 percent used gamification.
According to Rennella, the half that used gamification “observed an improvement in adoption speed, without disrupting workflow, by 36.3 percent.”
That’s a pretty effective game.
As HBR pointed out many decades ago, the true nature of resistance is that employees usually don’t resist technical change, but “social change — the change in their human relationships that generally accompanies technical change.”
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when effecting change in an organization, whether you’re adopting a new time management system, a new project management tool, a new water cooler in the break room, is that your employees are human. Treat them that way, rather than just cogs in the machine, and you’ll usually find that things work out okay.
Do you have any thoughts or tips on how to reduce resistance to change? Let us know!