Why do people resist change?

Kim Woods
Kim Woods | April 04, 2021
Transformation
Why do people resist change?

When launching a program of organizational change, no matter how big or small, one of the greatest challenges is usually - “how do I get my people ‘on board’”? Change implementation is achieved through the proper alignment of people at all levels of the organization, according to the specific change direction you’ve outlined. Once the message has got out - about the merger with a previous competitor, the restructuring of the R&D department, whatever it may be - you can bet that some people will take longer to come around than others - some might not come round at all. So, despite your best efforts, you will at least have to deal with some change resistance. So how do you successfully convince the people who otherwise might derail the vision?

Making sense out of chaos

From the employee perspective, change often seems to come out of nowhere. Unless they were privy to some nervous office gossip, the organization wide announcement on a Wednesday afternoon is going to be the first thing they hear. People spend a lot of time at work (30% of their life in fact), and are understandably invested in how a change impacts them. Will they have more work, less work, less status, more status, lose established work friends? Will the work culture they enjoy suddenly change? All these worries, and more, can come about due to change efforts.

For most people, uncertainty elicits an emotional response - and times of organizational change, similar to changing your employer, can be some of the most uncertain experiences in our working careers. The process that each employee goes through to counter this uncertainty is called sense making.

Sense making is the process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences. A more formal definition is: "the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing" (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 409). But this can be simplified to ‘thinking up stories about why things happen’. Three of the most important things to consider about “sense making” are:

  1. It is a social process that people engage in together (ie. water cooler chat)
  2. It’s an ongoing process - people’s perspectives change over time, and
  3. These perspectives are heavily informed by what is going on around us - what clues we can find to interpret what is happening - and make judgements about. Is this a good change? Or is it going to be bad for us / me?

Change doesn’t just impact those who have a role reassignment or are made redundant. As research shows, restructuring ‘survivors’ can sometimes suffer worse than those who regretfully have to leave. The research shows that there are very real downsides to surviving organizational change, including increased stress and decreased wellbeing and morale (Kleiner, 2003).

This is where your change dissent comes from - push back comes from genuine concerns from employees (or at least wholly believed by the person resisting), and people who are genuinely trying to make sense of the process in their own way - by pushing to get more information on an otherwise cloudy set of circumstances.

The best way to deal with that information gap? Communicate, communicate, communicate. I'll give you some guidance on how to go about that in the next article!

References

Makawatsakul, N., & Kleiner, B. H. (2003). The effect of downsizing on morale and attrition. Management Research News.