Why do people resist change at work and how can this resistance be overcome from an HR perspective?
Change is a common feature of the workplace. This paper examines why people resist change at work. It then explores how this resistance can be surmounted from an HR viewpoint.
2. Resistance to change at work
From research into individual and organisational behaviour, it is well established that people at work can sometimes resist change (Robbins, 1992). The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) define resistance to change at work as “an individual or group engaging in acts to block or disrupt an attempt to introduce change” (CIPD, 2014, p.2) and argue that, in general, resistance to change in the workplace occurs in two ways: “resistance to the content of change” and “resistance to the process of change” (CIPD, 2014, p.2).
The reasons for resistance to change at work are numerous. Resisting change enables stability and for the status quo at work to be maintained (Robbins, 1992). Change jeopardises the comfort zones and security of employees who are risk averse and who like familiarity (Holbeche, 2001). The fear of the unknown may result in resistance to change (Robbins, 1992). There may be resistance when change appears to threaten someone’s income (Robbins, 1992). Change can appear threatening to the individual worker when it is foisted on them top down without their input as they do not feel in control (Holbeche 2001).
Gifford et al (2012), in their review of change programmes in NHS South of England, found that “many people do embrace change, but it is easy to feel undermined or threatened by it, even if one accepts at a broad level that change is needed. As well as the challenge of embracing new ways of working, it can be hard to let go of the old ways. Not only do people have ingrained habits and ways of thinking; they also become skilled in familiar work and may feel that their credibility is based upon it. For example, if someone spends years honing skills in a specific procedure and is then told they should be using a completely different technique, this may cut at their sense of self worth” (Gifford et al, 2012, p. 15).
Thus, there may be resistance if a person’s perception of how the world of work should be is threatened. Robbins (1992) explains that “individuals shape their world through their perceptions. Once they have created this world, it resists change. So individuals are guilty of selectively processing information in order to keep their perceptions intact” (Robbins, 1992, p.281).
Psychologists have studied resistance to change and it has been recognised that change may involve a significant shift for the individual, like a bereavement, where what was once certain is no longer so and they have to relinquish the familiar in order to be able to embed change (Holbeche, 2001).
The psychological contract is an important consideration when looking at resistance to change at work. Guest and Conway (2002) defined the psychological contract as “the perceptions of both parties to the employment relationship, organisation and individual, of the reciprocal promises and obligations implied in that relationship” (Guest and Conway, 2002, p.22). The CIPD (2005) argue that the psychological contract is “now best seen as a tool that can help employers negotiate the inevitable process of change so as to achieve their business objective without sacrificing the support and co-operation of employees along the way” (CIPD, 2005, p.4).
CIPD (2005) commented that people expected commitments made to them by management to be honoured and that management should make the effort to do so. Where management is not able to honour a commitment, attempts should be made, however difficult, to explain why and its impact on the employee. A breach of the psychological contract is likely to result in employees having a negative attitude to their employer which would include resistance to change. A case study at a Scottish manufacturing plant, where employees believed that the psychological contract had been breached by the employer, noted that the regular imposition of change programmes had resulted in a high level of cynicism amongst supervisors and shop floor staff (Pate, Martins and Staines 2000).
If there is a lot of organisational change in a workplace, it is likely to be negatively received by its staff (CIPD, 2005;Guest and Conway 2001). Furthermore, where there is frequent change, it is likely to result in staff believing that management do not know what they are doing and their trust in them declines (CIPD 2005) (Guest and Conway 2001).
In spite of all the above, research into change management reveals that there are things that can be done to alleviate resistance to change.
3. Overcoming resistance to change: the HR viewpoint
3.1 Adopt a positive approach to resistance at work
Resistance to change can be a cue for stakeholders in an organisation to have a meaningful debate about the merits of the proposed change. This may lead to amendments and improvements to the change (Robbins 1992).
3.2 The need to understand why change is happening
Research has shown that it is important for staff to understand why change is happening in terms how it will benefit the business and ideally how will it benefit them.
In the Gifford et al (2012) review of change programmes across the NHS South of England, it concluded that “leaders need to sell the benefits of the change. To do this they need to express their vision in a way that makes it easy for stakeholders to relate it to the purpose and values of the NHS and to their own principles and motivations” (Gifford et al., 2012, p.5). Gifford et al (2012) added that “purpose and vision [of the change programme] are crucial factors” (Gifford et al., 2012, p. 51) that should be communicated in many ways to make sure the message connects with the stakeholders.
In redundancy situations, Holbeche (2001) discovered that there was a “link between the perceived reason for the delayering and the effect on employees. If people thought that the reason for the delayering was simply cost cutting, their morale and motivation tended to be more adversely affected than where there appeared to be a more ‘strategic’ reason for the change” (Holbeche, 2001, 367).
Communication plays a critical part in helping staff understand why change is happening and in feeling engaged in the change process. Internal communication mechanisms which enable staff to feel empowered and involved are key to minimising resistance. Two way communication mechanisms like attitude surveys can be effective, but only if visible changes arise as a result (Holbeche, 2001). Other forms of communication that can help are senior management presentations (where questions can be asked and answered), road shows, team briefings and management cascades, question and answer mechanisms (for example by email) and internal newsletters (Holbeche, 2001).
Communication should ideally involve an element of being two way and should include all stakeholders. The CIPD (2005) found that top down communiques by senior managers were perhaps the most ineffectual way of delivering important messages to staff. Mission statements were slightly more effectual, but the most successful way of reaching staff with messages that they are likely to believe is through line managers (CIPD, 2005).
In recent times, storytelling, narratives and theatre have been used in change situations as innovative ways of communicating with staff in order to get them engaged and involved. These methods allow for a move away from top down senior management communication (Daley and Browning, 2014, Dennis, 2010, Thomas and Northcote, 2012).
Formal communication, in times of change, should:
- Inform – about the organizational/ personal implications
- Clarify – the reason for the change, the strategy and benefits
- Provide direction – about the emerging vision, values and desired behaviours
- Focus – on immediate work priorities and actions, together with medium term goals
- Reassure – that the organisation will treat them [staff] with respect and dignity” (Holbeche, 2001, p.368).
3.4 Staff engagement
Those affected by the change need to feel engaged so that they believe that they are invested in the change. This can be time consuming and difficult for those leading the change (CIPD 2005, Gifford et al. 2012). Engagement can mean getting staff to buy into change that has already been devised or it can mean getting staff involved in actually designing the change (Gifford et al., 2012). Leaders need to be clear about what level of engagement is being offered as unfulfilled expectations risk demotivating staff and weakening good will. (Gifford et al, 2012).
Bearing in mind the psychological contract, the CIPD (2005) argue that managing change well involves getting employees’ buy-in and making sure that they are not caught unawares. Employees want fair treatment and it is important that they believe that they can trust management. As stated earlier, if employees’ expectations are not to be met, the reason why should be explained by management (CIPD, 2005).
Those in leadership positions in the organisation have to act as role models for change to be successful. If the behaviour of the leaders in an organisation is at odds with their verbal utterances in a change situation, it can result in cynicism in staff and thus resistance to change.
Holbeche (2001) reports of a case study where company directors were charged with leading an organisational change involving paying particular attention to the customer. The directors talked to staff about the importance of the organisation’s values, especially teamwork. However, staff knew that the senior leadership team did not work well as a team and thus, the change message was being met with cynicism. When the Chief Executive took drastic action and threatened to punish the directors financially, that was when the directors became serious about role modelling good team work and effective leadership. As a result, the change message became believable to staff.
3.6 Apply learning from neuroscience
Dowling (2014) explored the connection between neuroscience and change management. He found that neuroplasticity, the concept of the adult brain being able to change through specific activity and experiences, was applicable in change situations, if it was self-directed by the individual employee. He advised that employers should give their employees the latitude to have their own insights into the proposed change and that this would allow new neural pathways to be formed in the employees’ brain, making sustainable change possible.
Downing (2014) also explored the impact of threat and reward on employees’ behaviour. He argued that when a person is faced with a perceived threat, the brain has an inbuilt defence mechanism which is activated. This provides some explanation as to why there is resistance at work when an employee feels threatened. This argument reinforces the need for those leading the change to emphasize the benefits of the proposed change so that the employee’s brain reward response is activated as opposed to their threat response.
Downing (2014) additionally looked at habit and how the prefrontal cortex of the human brain (the advanced cognition brain area) operates primarily on the basis of habit, otherwise it would be using a huge amount of energy which would not be sustainable. During periods of change, when individuals are being required to adopt new habits, a heavy burden is potentially being placed on the prefrontal cortex. When designing change programmes, there needs to be an awareness of the brain’s limited capacity for change (Downing, 2014, Scarlett, 2013).
HR has a pivotal role to play in staff communication and engagement as well as in planning change effectively, including taking into account the learnings from neuroscience. There has to be a real partnership between the business and HR for change to be effective. HR plays a role in assisting, developing and supporting those in leadership positions to be effective in their roles so as not to undermine the success of the change programme and engender resistance to change (Holbeche, 2001, CIPD, 2005, Gifford et al., 2012).
Although resistance to change is something that occurs in the workplace for many understandable reasons, it can be minimised by good communication and staff engagement, explaining the need for change in terms of its benefits to the business and to the individual member of staff, learning from research, effective leadership as well as HR working well with the business and being an integral part of the change. Overcoming resistance at work matters, as while resistance is occurring, it may result in negative consequences such as having a negative impact on performance and productivity, creating an environment for turf wars at work as well as demoralising and demotivating staff (Holbeche, 2001,Robbins 1992, Cannon and McGee 2008, Hughes, 2010).