What to Do When Employees Resist Change

hand            There are times when abrupt and massive change is vital to the survival of an organization. In order for top management to succeed implementing drastic change, however, the support of the workforce is crucial. Unfortunately, substantial changes in the workplace result in many questions, which mostly go unanswered. Furthermore, when confronted with the unknown humans have a tendency to be anxious and fearful. These fears can be paralyzing and counterproductive to the organization and hence need to be accounted for well in advance. If top management overlooks this important factor, employee resistance can become the major hurdle in the company’s change program.

Strategies to Counteract Employee Resistance to Change

Chew, Cheng, and Petrovic-Lazarevic (2006) investigated resistance to change in the restaurant business and applied the following strategy to implement change. Change should be implemented using a three-stage approach consisting of an unfreeze stage, a moving stage, and a refreezing stage. First the status quo is questioned in the unfreeze stage.

During the initial unfreezing stage, management needs to “sell” the problem to the employees. It is vital to engage in intensive dialog with the workforce to uncover employee’s needs, fears, and dissatisfactions. Moreover, it is paramount to have the workforce participate in shaping the change itself. By eliciting and incorporating employee input into a change program several employee defenses are easily disarmed. First, employees are listened to and thus feel important. Expressing their views helps them identify their fears. People often realize that their fears are mostly unreasonable and exaggerated when they have the opportunity to fully describe the worst outcome they feel the change program might cause. Lastly, by shaping the new idea, employees add new information to the change program that top management may not have. By incorporating these employee suggestions, top management benefits from additional viewpoints and solutions but also capitalizes from the employee buy-in.

The moving stage is a transition phase itself, similar to what Bridges (2003) calls “neutral phase”. As the change is implemented, it is important to take in new ideas from employees and implement them. Since the employees will be affected the most by the new changes, they should find a compromise with management for ensuring all their needs are met and fears are neutralized.

Finally, after the changes have been implemented the new environment has to become the status quo of tomorrow. The refreezing stage is the time where management and workforce should reflect on how the change was implemented and how it is progressing. During this stage, the workforce needs to get used to the change and become fully productive again. Management should find out if the change program affected employees negatively and take action immediately to resolve any outstanding issues. This should further allow acceptance of the change program and help employees adapt to the new environment.

Another set of strategies were researched by Mealiea (1978). The suggestions of Chew, Cheng, and Petrovic-Lazarevic (2006) may seem too simplistic for some practitioners. By following Mealiea’s analysis, practitioners can avoid several pitfalls when implementing organizational change. Mealiea states that resistance is more likely when one of three conditions is met. Resistance can result when employees are unfamiliar with facts, or when consequences are not seen as familiar to employees. When it is difficult for employees to relate to change or change agent, it can also result in higher resistance to change. The key, so Mealiea stated, is to have the change initially sought by the employee instead of top management ordering it.

Mealiea (1978) suggests that first all relevant information needs to be shared with all employees. It is important that the workforce has access to the same information and does not feel “out-of-the-loop”. Next, the workforce needs to actively participate in the change process. Both of these initial steps help reduce anxiety and anger and make employees feel and realize that they have control over the situation. As productivity levels tend to be overstressed in today’s competitive market, it is important that enough time is given to employees to adapt to the new situation without penalties. For example, employees that are paid by commission or other output-related measures should be put on a specific salary during the change period.

The change program should be split into very small steps, such that each step is simple and perceived as reasonable and non-threatening. Moreover, each small step successfully completed should be “celebrated”. This in turn helps to boost employee morale for the oncoming changes.

No matter how good the promises of the new change program sound, the timing has to be right and the change must be compatible with the existing organizational environment. An attempt to change too much too soon might be destined to fail because the organization needs to first “unlearn” the old ways before and it can learn the new. This is another reason why Mealiea (1978) recommends dividing change programs into many steps, as each step can be utilized to slowly maneuver the workforce into the right direction without disrupting the ongoing processes too much.

Furthermore, management should seek out and empower informal leaders within the organization and make them change agents. Especially in larger companies informal leaders at the functional level might have more influence over the workforce than formal leaders, who may appear too distant to succeed at persuading the workforce. Since every change process has potential to cause harm rather than good, employees should be given a route for formal appeal, in case of dissatisfaction with change program. Employees should be able to bypass the hierarchy and address their problems directly to higher levels in the organization if there are communication barriers at the functional levels preventing them from voicing their opinions and suggestions. This suggestion addresses potential issues of politics and boycotts within the company that need to be addressed as well before a change program is initiated.

Recommended Reading

Bridges, W. (2003). Managing Transitions (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Chew, M. M., Cheng, J. S., Petrovic-Lazarevic (2006). Manager’s Role in Implementing Organizational Change: Case of the Restaurant Industry in Melbourne. Journal of Global Business and Technology, 2, 58-68.

Mealiea, L. W. (1978). Learned Behavior: The Key to Understanding and Preventing Employee Resistance to Change. Group & Organization Studies, 3, 211-226.

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