By Dominic Lombardi
We’ve all encountered a change in our lives at one point or another. It can take many forms, from something as minor as waking up at a different time all the way to uprooting your family to pursue a job opportunity all the way across the country. For change to be successful, you must accept it and be comfortable with it, regardless of its intensity. One environment where many of us will encounter change is at work. Business leaders are tasked with ensuring the company’s operations under their purview are run efficiently and effectively. This will sometimes require a change to how a group, or the entire organization, currently operates after identifying a problem. Whether you’re a leader or a subordinate, the capability to handle change and implement change is critically important to an organization’s overall success.
Resistance to Change
If change is so necessary, why do people resist it? Vast portions of the current business research literature are devoted to determining how firms mitigate risk and why these techniques work. The same holds true for individuals; they resist change because it represents uncertainty and risk. In a 2011 paper, Myungweon Choi found that readiness for change, commitment to change, openness to change, and cynicism of change are all factors that affect an individual’s ability to handle change.
How do we identify if individuals in an organization are prone to resist change? Leaders can survey their employees, several inventories exist to give organizations an idea of whether a person is prone to resist change, including an instrument created by Shaul Oreg in 2003 as well as validated instruments built for the Technology Adoption Model (TAM), and the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT). Leaders should also be able to identify individuals that may resist change from personal knowledge about the employees they work with. Leaders should also keep in mind that the concept of resistance on its own should not be construed as a mark against an individual, after all it’s a perfectly natural response. What leaders do need to be cautious of, however, is letting that resistance take hold among a group.
The Importance of Followers
Burak Oc and Michael Bashur found that followers with higher personal power exert greater social influence on leaders, followers who are psychologically more immediate to their leaders exert greater social influence over them, and large groups will have more influence over leaders as a function of their within-group agreement. This is to say followers have just as large a role in successfully enacting change, if not bigger than the leaders trying to do so. David Courpasson and colleagues studied this extensively in a paper titled Resisters at work: Generating productive resistance in the workplace. In this paper, it was found that resistors can influence top management, and gain concessions, through active efforts. These efforts culminated in senior leadership having little choice but to give in to the resistance as the resisters managed to form new groups possessing enough power that forced the leadership’s hand.
Uhl-Bien and colleagues have researched the concept of co-producing leadership, where followers still defer to a leader but with advising, challenging, or persuading behaviors that ultimately generate more effective outcomes. One key aspect of co-production of leadership is communication. Research shows that leaders who communicate to their followers that they have faith in their employees’ abilities lead to an increase in the follower’s ability to meet these expectations through an increase in their sense of competence and self-efficacy. Leveraging this can help leaders create successful change.
Kotter, in his 1996 book Leading Change, lays out an eight-stage sequential process to ensure successful change in an organization:
(1) Establish a sense of urgency;
(2) create a guiding coalition;
(3) develop a vision and strategy;
(4) communicate the change vision;
(5) empower employees for broad-based action;
(6) Generate short-term wins;
(7) consolidate gains and produce more change; and
(8) anchor new approaches in the culture.
Jeffrey Ford and his colleagues also noted in their 2008 research paper regarding change resistance that several management practices that have been documented to reduce resistance, including communicating extensively, inviting people to participate, providing people with needed resources and developing strong working relationships. An individual’s resistance can be exacerbated through managers who break agreements, oversee a breakdown in communication, and by ignoring resistance itself.
Communicating the purpose of the change is essential but describing how the change will affect the employee is important as well. Remember, change scares people because it involves risk and uncertainty. By demonstrating to employees that the change efforts you’re proposing will have a positive effect on them, they will be less prone to resist the change. By including these employees early on in the process, by listening and responding to their concerns, and by incorporating suggestions they may provide you engage these individuals and make them part of this change process. By being part of the solution, they are far less likely to resist the proposed change.
Change is necessary for companies to survive. Leaders create the vision for this change and ensure it is executed throughout the organization. Communication is key in successfully creating and sustaining this change. Vision is critical. Figure out what you’re changing and why. Make sure this change will have a positive effect on employees and communicate this early and often. One needs to ensure these advantages are actually advantages to employees, or else managers may face resistance due to a violation of trust. Communicating extensively, inviting people to participate, and developing strong working relationships are all crucial to your change management program. By incorporating these concepts when leading change in your organization, you will have maximized your chance of success.