It’s become popular to comment that people are resisting the kind of change that you’re proposing. Whether you’re making a minor change, changing a software solution, or focusing on an organizational transformation that seems to be encountering resistance, it’s easier to make it about “them.” “Those people” are resisting the change – and that’s the excuse for a lack of success.
There is real resistance in every change effort, but it’s not people resisting change. The resistance that you’re feeling is related to the sense of loss that the individuals have. The loss may be real or simply imagined, but that loss aversion is what you’re seeing as resistance. Knowing that it’s not the change they’re resisting but loss, you can focus your efforts on neutralizing the resistance. (See Managing Transitions for more on resistance to loss.)
There are two strategies for reducing resistance to loss. The first is to create a higher degree of safety. The more that people feel safe about where the change is going and have trust that leadership will get them where they want to go, the more willing they will be to accept small losses. Resistance is highest when safety and trust are at their lowest. The second strategy is ensuring an accurate appraisal of the loss.
We tend to believe that safety is an absolute. Something is either safe or not. However, the truth is that safety is about our perception of our ability to survive. We evaluate stressors and assess both their probability and their potential impact against our capabilities, both internally and through our network of relationships. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Emotion and Adaptation for how we manage stress and process potential threats to our safety.) We are further influenced by environmental factors like the time of the day and familiarity, because these influence our perspective on both the risk and the resources we have available to ourselves.
Trust is a simple concept with a great deal of complexity behind it. Trust is the degree to which we expect that our predictions about the behavior of others will match their actual behaviors. The greater our beliefs that they have our best interests at heart or will look out for us, the greater our trust. The problem is that trust is built through a long road of making and meeting commitments and can be destroyed by a single slip. These slips are betrayals – they’re where our prediction of the other person’s behavior didn’t match. (See Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace for more.)
If we want to reduce resistance, we can increase trust. This can be done through making and meeting commitments or through something as simple as increasing the frequency and transparency of our communications. We can also use credibility markers to strengthen the perception. Others exhibiting their trust in us can powerfully elevate the level of trust that someone else will develop in us. We can also find ways to communicate our competence to others through stories of prior experience, certifications, and degrees. These all convey to others that we are likely to meet the expectations of us.
Sometimes the problem isn’t a perception of a lack of safety or even a lack of trust. Sometimes the problem is that the loss appears too big to be handled. While it’s true that some changes will have far-reaching influences that may be too much for someone to adequately cope with, in most cases, the degree of loss is smaller than it appears to the person who is being asked to make the change. Simple losses like a loss of familiarity with the approach spiral into feelings that you might find them to be incapable of the new way of working and that they’ll lose their job. If they lose their job, they’ll be unable to find another job or pay their mortgage, so they’ll lose their house and have to live on the street or worse – move back in with their parents.
Sometimes the key to adverting loss-based resistance is to simply take a closer look at the real impact of the potential loss. Instead of allowing the employees to connect the dots in the most psychopathic way possible, perhaps you can candidly walk through the potential losses and scope them appropriately.