Managers and employees who persistently resist change over time create measurable impacts on a company including decreased productivity, negative customer satisfaction and loss of valued employees. In some cases, excessive resistance can cause a change to fail. This tutorial presents a new model for understanding resistance to change and the impact on a business.
The Flight and Risk Model is a useful teaching tool to convey the key attributes of resistance to change. The model is shown in Figure 1 and consists of three regions. Region 1, Comfort and security (shown in green), is the normal work environment. Region 2 (shown in yellow) is an area of worry and uncertainty for employees. Region 3, the Risk or Flight zone (shown in red), is the area that employees feel at risk from the change. Along the vertical axis, employee fear and resistance is increasing. Along the horizontal axis, time is moving forward.
Each band of the Flight and Risk Model has characteristics for employee behavior. In the comfort and security region, employees feel secure in their work status and environment. This is the region of optimal productivity and normal work behavior. In Region 2, employees are worried about the changes taking place at work. In this region, employees become distracted (and they distract others). Employee morale may decline and evidence of passive resistance becomes visible. Productivity loss is measurable. In Region 3, employees enter a "fight or flight" role. Active resistance to change is apparent from some employees, while other employees may leave the company. Customer impact is measurable and the change itself is at risk.
The dashed line represents a potential track that a group of employees may follow when faced with change. Note that the onset of this track is a management communication or a rumor that change is coming. The two essential characteristics of this track are time and degree. Time reflects the duration that the group is under stress from the change. Degree represents the height or level of stress felt by the organization.
When a management communication or rumor starts about change, the organization moves upward in this Flight and Risk Model. That movement is normal and predictable. The rate at which the organization moves upward in this model (the slope of the curve) depends on several defining attributes of the organization and the change itself. The factors that can impact the rate of climb into Region 2 or Region 3 are:
The organization's history with past change
The organization's values and culture
The level of change already going on within the organization
These factors are inherent in the company. That does not imply that the track through the Flight and Risk Model is pre-determined. In fact, the variables that managers can control have a significant impact on this track. These variables include:
How communications are made (who, when, how and what). For example, rumors accelerate the rise in the Flight and Risk Model faster than a carefully planned management communication.
The sponsorship for the change at all management levels
How the future state is perceived by each employee
The level and type of training and coaching provided to employees
How resistance to change is dealt with by managers
The time and degree for the track through the Flight and Risk Model is controlled by how effectively change management techniques are employed to deal with these inherent organizational factors. Figure 2 below shows two potential tracks for an organization. One in which an organization employs change management effectively, and the other track in which change management is not employed effectively. Note that in the track labeled Poor Change Management, the organization rises rapidly into Region 3, the Red Zone, and stays there for a long period of time. In this track, the organization is surprised and shocked into change, and suffers customer and productivity impacts. In the second track labeled Excellent Change Management, the rise into Region 2 is slower, and the duration is shorter. In this track, change management techniques were employed carefully to manage the negative consequences of the change.
The track through the Flight and Risk Model is not the same for every group in an organization. Each group or department will have unique values and management styles. Each of them will be impacted differently by proposed changes. Figure 3 shows the multiple tracks that may be experienced during the change process. Note that while Departments C and D followed a positive track through the Flight and Risk Model in this example, Departments A and B had a greater level of resistance.
This model is useful as a teaching tool when discussing resistance to change. The following observations about resistance can be visualized with this model:
From an organization perspective, resistance to change is automatic and expected
Resistance to change has levels of severity that have different impacts on the organization
Resistance to change is not an event, but a "state" of the organization. The longer you remain in elevated states of resistance, the greater the impact on productivity and on customers, and the greater the risk of losing valued employees
Resistance to change is not uniform across the organization; each group or department will develop a unique perspective on the change
Change managers need to be concerned with both the time and degree to which the organization is under stress or duress from the change process
Persistent and enduring resistance from managers or employees is a threat to the change and the organization
Although the inherent attributes of an organization are not controllable (history, culture, current change capacity), the ultimate track an organization follows through the Flight and Risk Model is controllable through the correct application of change management techniques. Understanding resistance in the context of this model helps managers and change agents plan for and correctly manage change in their organization.
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.
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