3 Strategies for Managing Resistance to Change

If you’ve led the implementation of changes in your organization, you will have experienced resistance to change in some shape or form. Here are some of the ways I’ve heard leaders describe that experience:

  • “My staff keep asking the same questions repeatedly – it’s like they’re searching for reasons to oppose this project.”
  • “In meetings, people say that they’re okay with the change, but I can tell by their crossed arms and frowns that they’re unhappy.”
  • “No one has expressed concerns directly to me, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that there is a lot of negative talk about this project.”
  • “Our employees are not adopting and using the change, despite having been trained. They’ve developed a workaround to avoid using the new system.”

These experiences are all examples of resistance to change. Not surprisingly, one of the most common questions I get when I’m helping senior leaders and managers improve the success rate of their change initiatives is “how do I eliminate resistance?”

Resistance is a normal, human reaction to change. You should expect resistance and not be surprised by it during times of change. You can’t eliminate resistance, but there is a lot you can do to reduce the amount you will face and to manage it when it does occur. Prosci’s Best Practices Research has identified three strategies for managing resistance to change. I like to explain these strategies using a health care analogy.

1. Resistance prevention: The most effective health care strategy is to promote wellness and support people to adopt healthy lifestyles that can prevent illness. Exercising regularly, maintaining an ideal weight and managing stress are key contributors to a healthy lifestyle. Similarly, the most effective resistance management strategy is resistance prevention. Forty-four percent of the participants in Prosci’s 2014 Best Practices in Change Management Study stated that more than half of the resistance they experienced from employees could have been avoided. Prosci’s research also revealed that the best way to avoid resistance is through the early and effective application of a structured approach for managing change. For example, a structured approach can be used to engage the individuals who will be impacted by a change in designing and implementing the change. By providing meaningful opportunities for impacted individuals to be involved throughout the lifecycle of a change, you can build their ownership of the change and prevent resistance. 

2. Proactive resistance management: In health care, early detection of a medical condition, through regular check-ups and screening, can significantly improve the potential for a successful outcome. Similarly, the second strategy is proactive resistance management. Prosci defines this as “the anticipation and identification of resistance early so that it can be planned for, addressed or eliminated upfront.” A practical example of proactive resistance management is using a stakeholder assessment prior to making a change to determine which groups will experience the greatest impact from a change, anticipate how they will react to the change and identify special tactics to mitigate the potential resistance.

3. Reactive resistance management: If a person does become ill, a proper diagnosis of the underlying condition is critical to determine the appropriate treatment. Similarly, the third strategy is reactive resistance management, which is defined as “a set of steps that can be used when resistance becomes enduring or persistent.” The successful application of this strategy requires an understanding of the root cause of the resistance to change. Too frequently, we assume that resistance is due to lack of desire to adopt a change. In fact, Prosci’s research revealed that, “the primary reason employees resisted change was lack of awareness of why the change was being made.” It’s also possible that resistance is related to lacking knowledge on how to change or lacking the ability to apply new skills that are required to implement a change.

To improve the success rate of your change initiatives, you will need to use all three strategies for managing resistance:

  • Start by using a structured approach for managing change on every project (Resistance Prevention).
  • Next, anticipate the who, where and when of potential resistance and select specific actions to mitigate the resistance (Proactive Resistance Management).
  • Finally, if resistance becomes enduring or persistent, determine the root cause of the resistance and choose appropriate tactics for addressing the cause (Reactive Resistance Management).

If you are experiencing resistance that threatens the success of your change initiative, contact me. Navigo helps organizations develop the internal capability to successfully manage change.