If we’ve heard it once from frustrated leaders, we’ve heard it a thousand times: “People always resist change.”
But is that really true? Is change always viewed as bad by employees? Of course not. Many changes are readily acknowledged by employees to be good, necessary, and positive. Yet they still resist – even when they know that the change will bring benefits to the business and to themselves personally.
Why is this the case? It is because people don’t resist change as such: people resist the chaos that gets created when moving from the current state to the future state. Chaos engenders pain, uncertainty, fear, confusion, and more. That is what people are resisting.
This, then, is what is actually going on:
Understanding where resistance comes from can help you, as a leader, to manage it. Resistance is not because people are “stuck in the mud,” “stubborn,” “argumentative,” “lazy,” or “not team players.” Resistance happens because people don’t like chaos.
This resistance takes a very predictable path, as defined by William and Susan Bridges, preeminent authorities on change and transition. In their work, the Bridges discuss four phases that everyone – whether an employee or a leader – goes through when the chaos between the current state and the future state hits:
Denial is where things begin. People are in shock, confused, and anxious. Questions abound: “How will this impact me?” “Do I still have a job?” “What are my new responsibilities?”
As time progresses and people see that the change is going to be a reality, numbness wears off and the emotions kick in – all the negative ones. Anger: “I hate this!” Fear: “I might lose my job!” Frustration: “Why do we have to do this anyway?” Cynicism: “This is never going to work.”
In the third phase, people have turned a corner. There is still negativity – such as skepticism and impatience – but it is balanced with positives: hope, acceptance, and curiosity. “Maybe this is going to work.” “I get it; let’s go.”
Finally, people get excited. They may have a sense of relief, but their overwhelming feeling is: “We made it!” There is strong enthusiasm and a renewed sense of trust. “We’re headed in the right direction. This is good for me and the company.”
You cannot prevent this progression from happening. You should never be surprised when it occurs. The negative responses and emotions are normal and should be expected. The good news is that, by taking the proper steps, you can effectively manage the change to help your people through the chaos:
In the Denial phase, people need information. They are in shock, they are confused, and they have a ton of questions. You need to communicate, communicate, communicate. When you think you have given people information overload, you have probably barely scratched the surface of what they really need to know and understand. John Kotter in Leading Change states that leaders consistently under-communicate the vision for change by a factor of 10. You cannot over-communicate during a change initiative.
As people move to the Emotion phase, they need your support. It’s important here not to give in to your natural reaction, which is to get defensive and angry. You need to be intentionally and personally supportive. Here is where all your active listening skills come into play. Ask open-ended questions, use paraphrasing and reflection statements, and take nothing personally. Work at it until your people work out their feelings. They will then move into the Transition phase.
In Transition, your people need structure. Be prepared to communicate with absolute clarity the roles that people now have, their responsibilities, who they are accountable to and what they are accountable for, the new processes and policies, etc. Structure helps people to regain their stability and find their footing in the new order.
Finally, when people reach Excitement about the change, they need your reinforcement. Reinforcement involves positive reinforcing feedback, celebration, recognition, and motivation for all the ego-level needs. You have to reinforce to really achieve the new norm and leverage it. After all, the next change initiative in the business probably already needs to start!
By employing each of these behaviors, you will reduce the amount of time and disruption that the chaos of change causes. Just remember:
- Resistance doesn’t happen because of change – it happens because of the chaos that change brings.
- Each and every person will go through the four phases of Denial, Emotion, Transition, and Excitement.
- In the Denial phase, give people information.
- In the Emotion phase, give people support.
- In the Transition phase, give people structure.
- In the Excitement phase, give people reinforcement.