Don’t manage people’s resistance to change, manage their emotions

Written by: Brendan Barker

Managing change is hard right?

People are always so resistant to the new ways, the new processes, the new systems. Why do people have to be so afraid of change?

I’m sure this is a question almost all of us have asked ourselves at some point when trying to manage organisational change, but I wonder what the real reason is for people’s resistance to change? We tend to convince ourselves it’s because they’re afraid of the unknown or that people derive a sense of comfort from completing tasks in a manner rooted in familiarity. While I can’t dismiss this completely as a foundation for change resistance, part of me suspects a more prosaic cause. I wonder if the real reason people resist change is because we try to ‘manage’ it so precisely.

I’ve said this before, the job of management is not to control people, it’s to build great teams, but all too often leaders try to manage organisational change by controlling how people think, feel and act about it. I’ve heard many of the platitudes before – ‘we should be excited about this change’‘this is going to make things easier for you so get on board’ or ‘if you don’t embrace the change then you’re going to get left behind‘. Each of these tired little bromides carries a single underlying message – ‘we expect you to be excited about this change, so just do it’. When I hear these kinds of statements, I start thinking maybe the reason people seem resistant to the change is because they’re really resisting the person trying to push them through it.

So, here are 4 ways we can be better at guiding change in our organisations.

1. Stop treating people as functions

The people in your team are human beings, just like you. If you want them to come along with you on a journey of change then treat them with the respect they deserve. It’s a sad indictment of the global corporate culture that managers learn to treat people below them as functions, tools through which managers can achieve their own personal goals. When people are treated this way, is it at all surprising they become mistrustful of their leaders and the organisation? Why then would anybody naturally embrace change?

When an organisation has lost the trust of the people everything goes a little pear shaped. Morale, productivity and engagement levels will all go down. Attrition, conflict and resistance will go up. So, when it comes time to drive change in the organisation you are going to face an almost impenetrable wall of resistance.

Treat people with civility and you’ll find they are more likely to embrace organisational change when it happens.


2. Highlight the benefits of the new way over the challenges of the old

Put simply, this is about comparing what is, with what could be, and continuously moving back and forth between the two. People won’t always jump right on board with your change and we shouldn’t expect them to. To utilise a sailing analogy, when you’re sailing against the wind you are encountering resistance. When this happens, the crew will continuously tack back and forth so they can capture the resistance from the wind and use it to their advantage. In the same way you need to move back and forth between the unacceptable current situation to the new and exciting future situation.

But what does that look like I hear you ask? It’s really a matter of comparing the current struggle against the future easy. When Steve Jobs launched the iPhone in 2007, he started by saying ‘this is the day I’ve been looking forward to for two and half years‘. He talked about the existing mobile phone technology and the limitations it placed on our lives. Then he said, ‘every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything‘. Suddenly people could see what the new technology could do, and the excitement was palpable.

So, when you’re introducing change try to frame it the same way. Here is the major challenge with the current situation and here is how much easier it is with that challenge removed. This is the extra work we must complete right now but this is how much easier your lives are without that extra work.

If you do this correctly, the old way will become undesirable and people will begin to gravitate towards the new normal. The trick is to start with the current situation, move back and forth between the current and the new and always end with the new normal.


3. Address the anxiety, not the resistance

Very often managers will directly address people’s resistance to the change and try to tell them why they shouldn’t be so resistant. This usually serves to treat people like children and ultimately increase the anxiety they’re experiencing. It’s not a bad thing to acknowledge that change can be difficult, particularly when that change is imposed from an external source.

Acknowledge the anxiety people feel when external change is imposed on them and try to allay those fears by reinforcing a sense of community experience. We are all going through this change together and, together, we can all help each other through it. Just look at the current environment in the midst of the pandemic. The world is experiencing unprecedented change, we are being asked to make significant and ongoing changes to our everyday routine but, through it all, there is still a tremendous sense of community and shared experience.

Addressing anxiety levels rather than the resistance itself can create a greater sense of calm and acceptance of the new way.


4. Seek contributions

Have you ever heard of The Ikea Effect? Put simply, we tend to attach greater value to something we’ve had a hand in creating ourselves. When people are given the opportunity to have input into how the change is implemented, they can be more committed to the change.

Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer and MIT Sloan School of Management said ‘people don’t resist change, they resist being changed’. So let them develop the change journey with you. We already talked about treating people like people, so let them share their concerns and anxieties with you, and then let them give you their ideas for implementing the change with the least amount of disruption possible. If you can do that, the change implantation will run much more smoothly.


In the end, change is inevitable.

The late American journalist Sydney J Harris wrote ‘our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better‘.

I couldn’t agree more but I think what we really want to stay the same is our comfort with the current situation. When we address people’s comfort levels through change, I think we have a real shot at a smoother and more inclusive implementation system for change.

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