Resistance to Organizational Change: Fact or Fiction?

Introduction

Resistance is often identified as the number one reason for the failure of most organizational change. It (resistance) is a concept almost every organization has come to expect. And herein lies the fundamental reason that resistance has become so pervasive in organizations undergoing change – it is not because people inherently resist change but because leaders expect resistance instead of readiness and manage the change accordingly. Some research has suggested resistance to change should be retired from the vocabulary of organizational change (Dent & Goldberg, 1999). Sound unrealistic? Not really. The reality is most of what is currently identified and managed as resistance could be dramatically reduced, even prevented completely, by a shift in thinking. Preventing resistance requires two things: first, a shift in focus from an emphasis on managing resistance to a commitment to the preparation and planning required to raising readiness; second, an increased understanding of the nature of resistance, not as an outcome, but rather as an indicator of how the affected individuals are coping with the organizational change.

Understanding Resistance

The current view of resistance as an inevitable outcome or phase of change has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in many organizations. It is estimated that 60-80% of people in an organization are neither resistant nor ready (Smith, 1996). Whether they become resistant or ready all depends on how the transition is facilitated. Unfortunately, most organizations fail to adequately address the human dynamics of the change, which results in resistance. To understand this better it is important to realize that resistance is not an outcome or an end state, but a reaction to the activities or environment individuals find themselves in. Simply put, resistance is a response to an unresolved issue or problem that manifests in attitudes, feelings or behaviour. In this context then, it is not the change that is being resisted but the uncertainty and apprehension that comes when individuals lack the readiness needed to move through the continuum of change. With many organizations undergoing three or more simultaneous changes and given the intensity of the resources and energy organizational change requires, the current focus on managing resistance is not sustainable.

Defining Readiness

Readiness differs from resistance because it represents the level of interaction required to move forward with change. Readiness is defined as the willingness and ability of the individuals affected by the change to engage in the behaviours and activities required to adopt a new situation or environment (Turner, 2007). Research has shown that readiness acts to pre-empt resistance and as such, a lack of readiness is the precursor to resistance (Armenakis, Harris, & Mossholder, 1993). Therefore, assessing and building a change program based on readiness results in the ability to actively shape and manage the transition. ACCEPT© is a convenient six-step model that can help you shift your thinking from resistance to readiness.

ASSESS – Effectively raising readiness and facilitating change requires information and knowledge. Knowledge is needed about how the change is viewed by the leaders and the individuals that must make the transition. Both the organizational capacity for change and the readiness of the individuals should be assessed early in the planning process.

COMMUNICATE – Raising readiness requires leaders to reduce the uncertainty of the change. Reducing uncertainty requires getting the right information, to the right people, delivered by the right messenger, at the right time, and in the right mode. To ensure your communication supports your change efforts you need an information flow framework that enables an understanding of the context for change, appreciation for the transition needed, recognition of readiness and active dialogue among the individuals that will be affected by the change.

COMMIT – Raising readiness requires leaders’ commitment to building and maintaining the needed change infrastructure to launch the change, facilitate the transition and sustain the new steady state. To enable the commitment needed for success, the change infrastructure must include all levels of the organization that will be affected by the change.

ENGAGE – William Bridges (1986) stated, “people will build what they helped create”.  When the people affected by the change are engaged with the planning and implementation of the transition, success is dramatically improved. Unlike involvement, which can only create “buy in”, engagement builds the commitment needed for successful sustainable change.

PREPARE – “The will to win is worthless if you do not have the will to prepare” (Yost in (Maxwell, 2003). Preparing for change means gaining first the information and knowledge needed about the change, the readiness and capacity of the organization; and second, building a plan to enable the individuals to make the needed changes.

TOOLS – There is an old adage that says if all you have is a hammer than everything looks like a nail. Preventing resistance requires individuals to have a sense of confidence about their ability to make the transition. Building this confidence requires a variety of tools that enable the affected individuals to see, experience and test the change beforeimplementing a training program.

Conclusion

Is it possible to completely eliminate resistance to organizational change? Probably not, but much of what is currently labeled as resistance may not really be resistance. Napoleon Hill (Hill, 2002) stated, “Both success and failure are largely the result of habit”. The question organizational leaders must ask is: are you in the habit of managing for resistance or preparing to raise readiness?

References

Armenakis, A., Harris, S., & Mossholder, K. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46(6), 681.

Dent, E. B., & Goldberg, S. G. (1999). Challenging “resistance to change”. Journal of Applied Behavioural Sciences, 35(11), 25-41.

Hill, N. (2002). Think and Grow Rich (65th Anniversary Edition ed.). Hollywood: Fredrick Fell Publishers. Originally published 1937.

Maxwell, J. (2003). Thinking for a Change (Vol. Centre Street). New York.

Smith, D. (1996). Taking Charge of Change: 10 Principles for Managing  People and Performance: Addison-Wesley.

Turner, D.M. (2007). Clinician Readiness for Transition to a Fully Integrated Electronic Health Care Delivery System. Walden University, Minneapolis.

© 2009 – 2015, Dr. Dawn-Marie Turner. All rights reserved.

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