Resistance to Change: What It Is and How to Overcome It

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 19 October 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Many organisations aim to establish a resilient team of people who can respond to unexpected changes with grace and flexibility. Despite this, it's common for many individuals or teams to show hesitation about changes in the workplace. It's important to know how to spot and rectify hesitancy or resistance, so you can help your team learn new methods, policies or structures. In this article, we define resistance to change, share some indicators, discuss how it can affect an organisation and explain how to recover from it so managers and human resource leaders can proactively institute changes.

Related: How to Adapt to Change in the Workplace (With Tips)

What is resistance to change?

Resistance to change is hesitation or refusal to adopt a new process or approach in the workplace. Consistency can be comfortable for employees, so when you institute changes, some team members may be slow to adapt. You might also see this type of behaviour when you change processes or technologies or make structural adjustments that affect entire teams.

If employees have invested in learning the previous method or tool for their jobs, an unexpected shift might frustrate them or disrupt their confidence. It's important for leaders to recognise behaviour that indicates resistance to prevent teams from responding to unwanted changes with coordinated and clear actions, such as protests or meetings with leadership. Other times, individuals or groups might resist change by minimising their participation in team activities, ignoring memos or training sessions or adopting a pessimistic attitude at work.

Related: A Guide to Organisational Change: Types, Benefits and Steps

Signs of unwillingness to accept change in the workplace

It's important to know when employees distrust or dislike change so you can address their feelings proactively. Here are some common behaviours that might signal an unwillingness to accept changes:

Criticism

It's important to note when team members are vocally critical of new policies, leaders or processes. A resistant team member might express disapproval in meetings, emails or formal complaints. They might also discuss their feelings privately among colleagues.

It's important for managers to discuss changes openly with team members to address resistance that stems from criticism. Team members might react more positively if they understand why and how the organisation decides on certain changes. It's also beneficial for managers to accept and respond to critical feedback from employees, as it shows team members that the organisation wants to listen to them and consider their thoughts.

Lack of commitment

Sometimes, team members respond to an unwanted change by refusing to commit to it. Some people might ignore new processes or circumstances, choosing instead to continue operating in a way that's familiar. You might also notice team members missing meetings or work, arriving late or missing assignment deadlines.

To combat this form of resistance, it's important to ensure you communicate your expectations, giving people time to adjust but taking a firm approach to its inevitability. Establish consequences for those who refuse to accept the new way of doing things and follow through on consequences consistently and equally.

Related: What Is Employee Engagement in Work? (Benefits and FAQs)

Division

Unwillingness to change might present itself as a division among employees. Division can hinder collaboration and lead to internal arguments. Addressing such a situation is essential, as a division in the workplace can grow and disrupt productivity, employee morale and leadership effectiveness. In addressing division in the workplace, allow your team members to communicate their grievances openly so they can develop active solutions that everyone supports.

Related: What Is Dispute Resolution in the Workplace? (With Benefits)

Effects of resistance to change

Apprehension about change can lead to organisation-wide effects, such as:

Changes to morale

You might notice changes in a team's attitude if they resist a recent change. It's important to address a decline in morale to retain key talent and maintain a positive work environment. Seek opportunities to show the organisation's appreciation for its employees, especially during transitional times. For example, you might offer yoga sessions in the office to help a team unwind, de-stress and bond.

Related: How to Build Psychological Safety at Work (Plus Importance)

Poor performance

When employees feel disconnected from their jobs or unmotivated to adapt, you might see a decline in their productivity. The quality of their work may also suffer, especially if they're unwilling to learn a new tool or process that could improve their results. You can protect your team's output during a transition by planning adequate training.

Related: Why Performance Management Is Important (With Definition)

Rumours

Employees who dislike or distrust changes may assume why or how a change occurred. They could construct a false narrative either consciously to sabotage the change or subconsciously to understand it better themselves. In this situation, falsehoods surrounding the change may spread through the workforce, creating division and tension throughout teams.

For example, if a marketing manager suddenly leaves a company and a new hire takes their place, the marketing team might assume the company fired their previous manager. You can combat rumours spreading by being transparent about changes to the best of your ability. If an organisational change involves confidential information, it's important to keep details private, but involving team members as much as possible may help them feel more comfortable.

How to overcome resistance towards change

Follow these steps to help your team adapt to a change:

1. Listen to employee feedback

It's vital to show employees that their input is important. After implementing a change, collect employees' opinions. You can do this by holding a team meeting, sending out a survey or simply asking them in the workplace. It's helpful if the organisation acts on the feedback where possible to make the transition easier for employees.

For example, another business might have moved into the building, so fewer parking spaces are available for employees. Employees might submit survey responses saying the insecure parking situation causes them stress. The company could subsidise train and bus cards to help employees rely less on their cars or push the start time back 30 minutes to allow more time to find nearby parking.

Related: Why Is Feedback Important in the Workplace? (With Tips)

2. Prioritise transparent communication

Emphasise communication through every phase of the change process. By building connections and encouraging employees to remain open about their concerns and feelings, you can help team members navigate their emotions in productive ways. Share information about changes as early as you can. This can build trust between management and team members. Advance notice of upcoming changes also gives employees time to process the information before you expect them to implement it.

Read more: 10 Steps for Clear Communication in Change Management

3. Equip employees with the tools to succeed

Sometimes people feel nervous or unenthusiastic about changes because they're unsure of how to implement them successfully. Give employees the training and resources they require to feel confident about any changes. It might also help to detail the organisation's expectations clearly in person and in writing so team members have a reference they can return to if they're confused.

For example, if the organisation switches the phone system by removing desk phones so calls go directly to employees' phones, you could offer a training session to ensure everyone understands how it works. It might also help to issue a phone stipend if you expect team members to use their phones for business purposes. You could create a written policy detailing the hours you expect employees to answer incoming calls and what they can do if clients contact them outside work hours.

Related: How to Get Employees Excited About Training: 12 Top Tips

4. Have patience

It takes time to adapt to new software programs, managers and guidelines. Before assuming your team is entirely resistant to a change, give team members time to adjust. It might help to set benchmarks so you can periodically adapt to a new way of doing things. For example, if you're using a new cloud-based warehouse to store data, you might allow team members to save some documents locally while encouraging them to move their documents to the cloud. You can then establish a hard deadline for all relevant files to be in the cloud.

Related: How to Manage Change Within an Organisation (And Benefits)

5. Identify inappropriate behaviour

While it's necessary to be patient and recognise that people react to change in unique and personal ways, it's also important to address instances of inappropriate behaviour. For example, if people within an organisation refuse to accept a change even after they receive ample support and resources, or if they create an uncomfortable environment for others, have a conversation with them about their actions. Let them share their perspective and work with them on strategies for improving their behaviour.

If they continue to create tense environments, make others uncomfortable or spread false narratives, follow through on any consequences you've discussed previously. This might include taking disciplinary action or even terminating their position. Ultimately, if their resistance affects the functionality or safety of your team, it could be a sign that their goals and values are out of alignment with the organisation.

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