Resistance to change comes in many shapes and sizes, and it is manifested through all sorts of behaviors exhibited by employees. To begin the examination of "good" resistance, let's first think about three forms of resistance:
- Resistance that is natural - This form of resistance is tied to the natural, human reaction when things around us change. Some of the key sources for this type of resistance include the fear of the unknown and the loss of stability during change. In times of change, it is a psychological and physiological reaction to resist. This form of resistance should be expected to some degree, and by applying solid change management we can mitigate the resistance.
- Resistance that stems from not managing the people side of change - This second form of resistance stems not just from the natural reaction, but from a failure on the part of the project team, the leadership team and the management team to effectively engage employees in times of change. This type of resistance often results from leaving employees' questions unanswered, such as: Why is this change happening? Why is it happening now? What are the reasons I should get on board, both from an individual and organizational perspective? Will I be adequately prepared to succeed when the change is implemented? When these questions are left unanswered, employees will resist the change. Not because they are opposed to the change, but because they have not been engaged in the process. This type of resistance can be prevented through effective change management, mitigated through proactive resistance management and addressed through reactive resistance management (learn more about the three avenues for resistance management).
- Resistance that is an informed disagreement with the change - This is what we are going to call "good" resistance. Employees exhibiting this type of resistance have worked through the natural reaction AND have been provided the answers to the questions they have about the change. And yet they are still resistant to the change. Their resistance is not rooted in the natural reaction or because the change is being poorly managed, but rather their resistance is based on the fact that they disagree with an aspect of the change or the solution. This is "good" resistance and it is important to surface and act upon this information, because this type of opposition to the change typically unearths issues that the project team needs to address if the project is going to deliver the intended business results and outcomes.
This last notion of resistance in the form of an informed disagreement with a change is perhaps an unusual notion. Traditionally resistance is viewed as a barrier to project progress or success. After all, if individuals do not embrace and adopt the change, then the change cannot be realized. The important message here is that all resistance cannot be written off as the same. Just as resistance is not always stemming from a lack of desire, as discussed in previous articles about resistance, certain forms of resistance can be used to the benefit the project and better the outcomes. Employees can be valuable resources for project teams as they are often end-users, customer facing, or directly impacted by the change.
How do you identify "good" resistance?
We really do not know what has prompted an employee to walk through the door and say, "This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard," "Here we go again," or "What do they think they are doing to us?" Is it a natural reaction? Is it poor change management? Or, is it good resistance in the form of an informed disagreement with the change? We need a way to identify and isolate the root cause of resistance to determine if it is something we can help the employee work through, or if it constitutes something we need to surface and analyze at a project level.
The first step to analyzing the root cause of resistance is to conduct an assessment based on the ADKAR Model. It is important for change practitioners to remember that they are not usually the right person to be communicating messages and digging out the root cause of resistance. Change agents should be evoking the involvement of managers and seniors leaders to ask questions, listen to employees, enable feedback loops and provide coaching. When conducting root cause analysis, coach managers to ask questions such as:
- "Why do you think the change is happening?"
- "Do you support this change?"
- "Do you have the training you need?"
- "Are you having difficulties implementing the required skills and behaviors?"
- "Are you getting the reinforcement you need?"
If we can verify through assessments, surveys, informal chats or formal conversations that an employee is resistant because the solution or implementation process is not suitable or is broken, you've correctly identified a form of good resistance. You should consider this a benefit to your project because you can use this information to better your process and achieve better outcomes.
Here is a short example:
A large retail store decided to replace traditional barcode scanners with smart phones. This change would allow employees to carry fewer and slimmer devices. Employees were excited about the change and change management was actively present throughout the change process. The smart phones were administered to employees and training was provided. A few weeks after deployment to one store in particular, employees started leaving the new phones behind as they continued with day-to-day activities. As the perceived resistance became more and more persistent, the project team spoke with floor managers to try to uncover why employees were not using the new devices that were much anticipated. In the end, it became apparent that the smart phones did not function properly as actual phones, as originally intended. Upon further analysis, it was discovered that the phones deployed to this store did not undergo the proper testing before deployment. In the end, the resistance from employees actually helped identify a functionality failure of the new devices.
"Informed disagreement" with a change can be viewed as a type of "good" resistance, which in turn can be an essential input for those designing, developing and implementing the change. This is not to say that all resistance is good, or that resistant behaviors should be reinforced, but it is important to conduct proper root cause analysis in the face of resistance so as to not miss important information that could potentially benefit the project and outcomes.
Action steps for "good" resistance
For natural resistance and resistance stemming from unanswered questions, the action steps to take are using more effective change management and resistance management techniques. For "good" resistance in the form of informed disagreement, our actions should be much different. Rather than just addressing this resistance at face value, we should work to act upon the insights gleaned from the resistance. To effectively act on this type of "good" resistance, we must be able to collect and convey the resistance and reasons to the project team.
- Collect - Capture this resistance and the root causes, especially for "good" resistance where the root cause is often tied to the solutions or decisions coming from the project team. Be as clear and concrete as possible in capturing the specific objections or informed disagreement. As in the example above, managers and supervisors (those closest to the employees who actually have to bring the solution to life in their day-to-day work) can often provide insights to help you clarify reasons behind the resistance you are documenting.
- Convey - Communicate the objections and informed disagreement points to the project team. Even if the project team designed the solution with the end user in mind, it is impossible to foresee every potential obstacle. Conveying the feedback from the resistant employees to the project team will offer a starting point for adjusting the solution or implementation process, and can significantly improve the outcomes.
Resistance can be quite complex. But once we have an understanding of the fundamental forms of it, then we can begin to manage it. As presented in this tutorial, we have seen how some forms of resistance can be leveraged to improve aspects of the project and subsequently have a positive impact on the business outcomes. If resistance results from an informed disagreement, from an employee who has the awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement to change, there may be an opportunity for the change manager or project team to gain valuable insights into possible flaws or issues with the project or implementation process. Collecting and conveying this information to the project team can help achieve better overall success when it comes to obtaining the desired business results.