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Wednesday 27 July 2016
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Why staff resist change and how to encourage them to embrace it

Fri, 23 Oct 2015 | By Sarah Lewis
Sarah Lewis

‘People don’t like change’ – this is a complaint I often hear when working with businesses. So much so that resistance to change is seen as a major challenge to organisational initiatives within the recruitment industry. 

So how do we tackle this and help staff embrace the changes we need?

The first step is to understand why people resist change.

1) When receiving information about the need for change the brain asks: How is this relevant to me? Do I need to engage with? Is it interesting? Fail to stimulate a ‘yes’ and the information won’t register and so no behaviour change takes place. 

2) The information might trigger a defensive emotional reaction, commonly known as the fight, flight or freeze response. These can be interpreted as ‘resistance to change’.

3) If there is a previous history of change badly done or ineffectual change initiatives, this can trigger a ‘they’re crying wolf’ or a ‘heads down and this too will pass’ reaction. 

4) Organisations and people can suffer from change fatigue. Change takes energy. A group of people overworked and stressed can be incapable of responding positively to a change initiative – even if they think it’s a good idea. 

5) Sometimes there’s a good reason to push back against the proposed change. People elsewhere may be able to see things that the change originators can’t. They can easily be misheard and their legitimate objections are discounted. They are labelled ‘resistors’.

6) People are emotional beings and sometimes, even if the change ‘makes sense’ logically and rationally, people will have an emotional reaction that leads them to delay. For example, the need to deliver bad news – people may accept the need but delay the action. 

7) They may not have the brain capacity to focus on building new habits – as these take a lot of ‘brain power’. If they are already using that power to cope with fast-changing situations it can be hard to build a new habit. That’s why we put off instigating that new exercise regime until we have ‘time to think’!

So, how can we encourage people to embrace change?

1) Acknowledge the impact. Recognise that making changes takes time and energy.

2) Acknowledge previous bad experiences and use them as a springboard for discussing how to make this one a better experience.

3) Involve people in identifying the need and designing the response to change. For example, Appreciative Inquiry is a good example of a methodology that creates these opportunities.

4) Incorporate their intelligence. By engaging early with people who will be affected you are able make use of their detailed local knowledge, and will be in a better position to assess their motivations in raising different issues. 

5) Engage people’s positive future-orientated emotions; co-creating ideas of how the future can be releases this pull motivational energy.

6) Actively support the creation of new behaviour habits to make it easy to do the new thing, and to do it right. 

a. Remove hurdles so that doing the new thing right the path of least resistance

b. Give frequent, small positive rewards for doing the right thing

c. Give this lots of attention. Don’t assume because you’ve told them you can now switch your attention to something else. 

d. Make it as routine. Have reminders everywhere. 

7) Switch to incorporate more psychologically-based change approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry, World Café and Open Space.

By understanding the reasons for resistance and using the advice above to help your team embrace the desired change, you will find that new behaviours and systems will be integrated faster and more effectively.

Sarah Lewis is founder of Appreciating Change, a business psychology consultancy specialising in helping organisations to achieve sustainable change, and is an associated fellow of the British Psychological Society and a principal member of the Association of Business Psychologists.

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