Resistance to change: how to overcome it (and turn it into an opportunity)

Emmanuelle Abensur
Emmanuelle Abensur
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Temps de lecture : 7 minutes

Change is risky, but then so is standing still. To accelerate digital transformation, companies need to continually evolve their working methods and tools. However, many face resistance to change, which can derail their plans. In fact, 70% of change management projects fail to achieve their objectives due to internal resistance and lack of support from leadership.

Resistance to change refers to the reluctance or outright refusal to change processes or ways of working. This can affect individual employees, teams, or entire organizations. Whomever the people involved, this phenomenon never happens by chance. So, before launching a new project, it’s important to anticipate the resistance you may encounter so you can respond appropriately.

In this article, we share all the subtle signals to watch out for—as well as our best practices for overcoming internal resistance to change.

How does resistance to change manifest itself?

What the five stages of grief tell us

According to psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, we go through five major emotional phases when a change is announced to us:

  1. Denial: we go into a state of shock and refuse to face reality.
  2. Anger: we get angry and blame the whole world for what is happening to us.
  3. Bargaining: we try to negotiate to make change more easily acceptable.
  4. Depression: we plunge into a state of deep melancholy, convinced that the end of the world is nigh.
  5. Acceptance: we master our emotions and ultimately accept the change.
The 5 stages of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's change curve
The 5 stages of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s change curve (image source : Visual Paradigm)

The 5 stages of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s change curve (image source : Visual Paradigm)

As the chart shows, it’s perfectly normal for your teams to show resistance to change. So, listen to your staff’s emotions to identify the phase they’re in, and help them overcome their fears.

Signals to watch out for

There are several signals that can help you understand where your employees are on the change curve. Here are a few examples:

1. Denial

  • Refusal to acknowledge or outright rejection of information about the change
  • Unfounded optimism: employees convinced the change doesn’t concern them
  • Minimization of the impact or significance of the change

2. Anger

  • Open criticism or aggression towards the change’s initiators
  • Expression of frustration and discontent
  • Attempts to hinder or sabotage the change management process

3. Bargaining

  • Attempts to negotiate or stall the change
  • Counteroffers of compromise to maintain the status quo
  • Finding loopholes and escape routes limit the impact of change

4. Depression

  • Loss of engagement or lack of participation in change-related discussions
  • A feeling of powerlessness and resignation
  • Increased absenteeism and lower productivity

5. Acceptance

  • Recognition of change as inevitable
  • Active participation in the change management process
  • Gradual adaptation to new tools and/or work methods

How do you overcome resistance to change?

1. Understand where internal resistance comes from

The first step in overcoming resistance to change is simply understanding it. What’s behind this resistance? How does it manifest itself? Who does it involve, and to what degree? These are all questions you need to ask yourself if you are to take targeted action. 

In some organizations, resistance to change may be due to: 

  • a rigid and/or risk-averse organizational culture
  • poor internal communication
  • lack of employee involvement in the project
  • a lack of team training
  • a lack of skills (on the part of both executives and employees)
  • too frequent changes which – over time – create change fatigue
  • a lack of resources and appropriate tools
  • negative past experiences that foster distrust of change
  • management that lacks commitment
Gartner chart illustrating the phenomenon of change fatigue, and how it can create resistance to change
Gartner chart illustrating the phenomenon of change fatigue

2. Give your change meaning

Once you’ve identified the resistance you’re facing (or may face), you’ll need to adapt your internal communication accordingly. This communication should take place as far in advance of the project as possible. That way, it gives everyone time to grasp, understand, and prepare for the change.

Write clear messages, and use terms that can be understood by all your employees. In particular, explain: 

  • why the change is necessary
  • how it will be carried out and within what timeframe
  • what impact it will have (both internally and externally)
  • which teams will be affected and how
  • what benefits it will bring to the company and its teams

Personalize your messages according to the employee profiles you’re addressing, and the level of resistance to change within your organization. Alson, identify ambassadors who can pass on these messages to your employees. Trust us: it’s far more effective than a simple email from the C suite!

3. Involve your employees

Did you know that employees who are involved in change are less likely to oppose it? That’s according to an article in The Harvard Business Review as well as a study by Gartner. The latter shows that a project’s chances of success increase by 24% when employees are partly responsible for implementing the change.

To limit resistance to change, you need to encourage active participation from your teams. You can achieve this, for example, by creating a dedicated community on your enterprise social network. This will enable you to share all project-related information and encourage exchanges between people the change will affect most.

With the Talkspirit platform, your employees can react to your publications through a system of likes and comments. You can also solicit their feedback via polls, and answer their questions in real time via a group chat (or even a chatbot, if you want to save time!)

Share publications on Talkspirit to communicate with your employees and reduce change resistance
Share publications on Talkspirit

4. Get your leadership on board

Supervisors have a key role to play in driving change. Through their behavior, they can influence their team’s attitude positively—or negatively. Thus, it’s best to get them on your side to prevent them from encouraging resistance to change!

However, setting the example is not something that comes naturally to all leaders… and old habits die hard! That’s why it’s important to support them during the process. Communicate transparently about the upcoming changes, and explain what’s expected of them and why. Train them on the new tools and processes you plan to put in place, so that they in turn can train their own teams. Stay in touch with them, and set up regular coaching sessions as needed to encourage knowledge sharing and mutual support.

Also read: 8 Essential Tools for Effective Change Management

Finally, don’t expect supervisors to do everything perfectly the first time around. Encourage them and stay patient. After all, they’re human just like you. 🙂

5. Roll out in stages

Change cannot be decreed. It has to be implemented gradually. Proceed step by step, starting with small changes and spreading out your initiatives over time. This way, you’ll prevent your staff from becoming overwhelmed and resistant to change from the get-go.

To give yourself the best chance of success, we advise you to create a change management action plan. This will enable you to define: 

  • objectives and key results to be achieved
  • project deployment stages
  • who needs to be involved at each stage
  • tasks and responsibilities
  • deadlines

This action plan can be created on a spreadsheet, or more interactively with a tool like Holaspirit, which lets you manage your projects via kanban boards and evaluate their success via the OKR (objectives and key results) methodology.

Kanban board created on Holaspirit in order to create a change management action plan and overcome resistance to change
Kanban view of Holaspirit’s Projects module

6. Train your teams

To speed up the adoption of any change, you’ll also need to raise awareness and train your teams. Planning to introduce a new collaborative platform? Show your employees how they can use it on a daily basis—and how it can benefit them. Are you planning to change your HR team’s recruitment processes? Explain what’s going to change along with how everyone can make these new working methods their own.

These courses can come in a variety of formats: 

  • video tutorials
  • face-to-face or videoconference training sessions (organized in-house or through an external service provider)
  • self-training courses or MOOCs, which allow you to learn at your own pace
  • learning expeditions to discover how other organizations work

To make training more interactive, you can also use gamification tools like quizzes, serious games, or role-playing games. 

7. Recognize and reward individual efforts 

Are your employees starting to implement certain changes? Are your supervisors setting an example and helping their teams to change their practices? If so, acknowledge their efforts and give them that praise they so deserve!

For example, send them a message on your company chat, or highlight them via a post on your internal social network. To take things a step further, you can also set up a system of rewards (or incentives) to reward the “champions” of change. 

As you reach your objectives, take the opportunity to highlight your successes and congratulate the people involved (by tagging them on your internal publications). Choose formats that speak to everyone, such as infographics, videos or before-and-after shots that clearly show the impact of change. In this way, you can keep teams motivated, and effectively manage resistance to change.

A final word

To manage resistance to change, we need to stop thinking that it’s something we absolutely have to fight against. As the Kübler-Ross curve shows, it’s perfectly normal for an employee to be angry and want to oppose a change that will upset their habits. That’s why it’s important to anticipate this type of reaction, and to think about how you’re going to support your employees, from the most committed to the most resistant. And lest we forget, successful change is change that’s justified and explained!

Want to learn more about best practices for driving change within your organization? Then reach out—we’re here to help!

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