Do people resist change?
I have recently started a business change swear box. It sits on my desk and I put £10 in it every time I hear my least favourite business change phrases.
At the top of the list is a phrase I hear often – “people don’t like change”. I have heard it said by change sponsors and project managers, change champions and team leaders. It usually comes up during discussions about why stakeholders are resisting change.
The first business change I worked on was a major reorganisation of a UK-wide charity. Planned and run from the central office in London, it met with large amounts of resistance from stakeholders in locally-based teams across the UK.
As this was my first experience of business change, I quickly made the assumption that resistance is inevitable during change initiatives. Therefore, as a business change manager, I should expect resistance and managing it is part of my job.
Several change initiatives later, I have come to challenge this assumption. Do people resist change? It seems to me now that resistance is influenced by how change is implemented, rather than the nature of the change itself.
Ten Reasons Why People Resist Change
One of my favourite business change gurus is Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Still actively researching and writing well into her 70s, she has many insightful things to say about business change. Her approach to stakeholder resistance is summarised in her Harvard Business Review article: Ten reasons why people resist change.
In this article, Moss Kanter argues that sources of resistance can be found in every change situation, regardless of what the change actually is. These sources threaten the wellbeing of stakeholders in some way. For example, stakeholders may feel they are losing power, or that they are being asked to cope with too much change at once. Once wellbeing is threatened, stakeholders respond by resisting the change.
At no point does Moss Kanter list ‘people don’t like change’ as a source of resistance.
Resistance is a reaction, not an action
I like Moss Kanter’s approach. It takes responsibility for stakeholder resistance away from the resistors and places it firmly with those planning and leading the change. Suddenly, we can see resistance as a reaction to a threat rather than an action carried out against a change.
When I look back to my first major change, I can see the truth in this approach. The stakeholders did not resist the organisation’s vision for the change. Neither did they dispute the fact the change needed to happen. They were, however, threatened by four of the sources on Moss Kanter’s list:
- excessive uncertainty
- everything seems different
- loss of power
- loss of control
Dealing with uncertainty and too much change
There had been a lot of rumours and myths about the change flying around the local teams. This had contributed to uncertainty about what was actually changing and how. Stakeholders were feeling very unsettled and worried that they would not be able to cope with the size of the change. They were beginning to lose motivation and failing to engage with the change – classic symptoms of resistance.
To deal with this, I traveled round the UK and met with all the areas affected by the change. By talking face to face we could clarify exactly what the change involved, and what was just rumour and myth. We also discussed how the changes would affect the local areas and planned how they would manage it. Following these meetings, resistance was significantly reduced.
Loss of power and Loss of control
The threat of loss of power and loss of control was the source of a lot of stakeholder resistance. The change involved centralising some key decisions which were traditionally done in local teams. For example, central office was going to start setting prices for local services. Teams working in disadvantaged areas of the UK were concerned that this would make their services too expensive for local people to access. They felt that the decisions were being made without their input and therefore felt powerless and angry.
I fed the concerns back to central office who began to work with the affected teams to develop local plans to overcome the price rises. These included bursaries and free access for those on low incomes, and local fundraising in order to be able to offer reduced prices. This gave the teams back their sense of power and control, and resistance diminished rapidly.
What do I do next?
The threats from most of the Moss Kanter’s sources of resistance can be reduced, if not eliminated, by good business change management. It is only the last source, change can actually hurt, which we may be powerless to do much about. Job losses, changes to reward systems and the extinction of skills due to technological advances can all hurt individuals. All we can do in these situations is be transparent, fair and honest.
However, there are many business changes which should not hurt. In these cases, we should be able to minimise resistance by reducing the source of threats as much as possible. If we meet with resistance, we need to check against the sources to see where we need to do more work.
So the next time you hear “people don’t like change” as an explanation for resistance, ask yourself “do people resist change?”. Remember that stakeholders don’t automatically act against change. Rather, they react to threats to their wellbeing brought about by the change. It is our responsibility to recognise and minimise these threats. This will increase the change of success, and also significantly increase the wellbeing of our stakeholders.