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Employees fall into three groups when faced with change. Group 1 is open and willing to change and is often called the early adopters. Group 2 is uncertain and hesitant about change. Group 3 becomes entrenched and often will not change.

Depending on your organization and the type of change taking place, the distribution of employees in each group will vary. For simple changes with little impact, you may find that 90% of your employees fall into Group 1, 10% fall into Group 2 and no employees fall into Group 3. For complex changes that have a significant impact on individuals, the distribution may be much different, with a small fraction falling into Groups 1 and 3, and a large fraction into Group 2. Regardless of the distribution of employees into each group, the approach for managing resistance to change is similar.

Employee Group 1: Early Adopters

For Group 1, you are dealing with your least-resistant employees, the ones who are the first to commit to the change. It is critical that you engage these employees early and leverage their visible participation to help move the change forward. Each employee in this group can become a strong and active advocate for change and can influence the background conversation with other employees. This background network is a key channel to reach Group 2 employees. Group 1 represents your advocates.

Employee Group 2: Uncertain and Hesitant

Group 2 employees require the most time and attention. These employees are the central focus of the methods provided here. Their choice to support or not support the change will be influenced by how effectively the change is managed. Direct supervisors and coaches will be the primary enablers. This is the group that may need help moving through barriers to adopting and using the change. 

Employee Group 3: Most Resistant

Group 3 employees, by definition, are unlikely to change and will not support the change within the organization. They are often beginning an exit strategy that could include moving to another group or department, moving to another company, or leaving the workforce (e.g., retirement).

When considering Group 3 employees, remember the importance of where to focus your change management energy. Many times, change management energy is spent on the small percentage in Group 3. Instead, make sure you focus your change management energy on the majority in the other groups.

How to Diagnose the Root Cause of Resistance

Resistance is a natural and normal reaction to change. Every individual has a threshold for how much change they can absorb; however, the number-one reason frontline employees resist change is a lack of awareness of the underlying business need for change.

It is beneficial to diagnose the root cause of resistance using an assessment like the one below. Providing the needed information to increase employees' awareness of the business need for change is the first and most important proactive step in successful resistance management. The assessment below will allow you to determine if awareness, desire, knowledge, ability or reinforcement are barrier points or root causes for employee resistance. The assessment is best done face-to-face by someone who will actively listen to the employee. This is where your managers and frontline supervisors play a critical role in managing change. They will be key players and can use this assessment with their employees.

Resistance assessment Exercise

Note: this assessment worksheet is based on the ADKAR Model. You can use this exercise in a face-to-face discussion with a resistant employee or manager, or the employee could be asked to provide responses in writing (If so, see the employee feedback template). The administration of this exercise should be done by the employee’s direct supervisor if possible.

  1. Why do you think the change is happening? Describe the business, customer or competitor issues that you believe have created a need for change.
  2. Do you support this change? What factors affect your desire to change? Would you consider yourself in favor of the change, neutral towards the change, or opposed to the change?
  3. Do you have the training you need? Identify the skills and knowledge that you believe are necessary to support the change. On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate your current training on these skills and knowledge areas?
  4. Are you having any difficulty implementing these skills and knowledge? If yes, in what areas? Considering the required skills and knowledge, how would you rate your ability to implement the changes?
  5. Are you getting the support you need? Is there adequate reinforcement and support for the change going forward? In what areas can we provide additional support or reinforcement?

What This Means for You

As a project team or change management team, you will not be able to eliminate resistance; however, you can proactively manage and minimize that resistance. Once you have determined the barrier point for a resistant employee, you can take action to address that specific area. And knowing the potential types of resistant employees in your organization will help you focus your change management energy to be the most successful in your project.

For a complete set of change management templates, assessments and tools, including resistance management, attend a Change Management Certification Program.

Download the Managing Resistance to Change Executive Summary

Written by
Tim Creasey
Tim Creasey

Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.