Why Employees Resist Change

"Are you open to change?" sticky note pinned to corkboard.

One of the most critical aspects of improving an organization’s safety performance is the need to implement change. Whether implementing a new safety policy or procedure or trying to render positive changes toward safe human behavior, safety professionals are often met with resistance.

So, to be a more successful change agent, one needs to understand change resistance and the reasons people resist change, even good change. It is important to remember:  Change is uncomfortable. Arnold Bennett, the English novelist, once said,  “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.”

Why do people resist change?

Mistrust: If employees respect the change agent because he/she has established a level of trust, they will be more willing. Mistrust can develop into resistance to change. In Harvard Business Review, Paul Strebel states:  “Individuals formulate responses… in large part by evaluating their relationship with their boss.” If employees don’t trust you now, they certainly won’t suddenly trust you during a process of change.

Predisposition: Everyone’s individual tolerance for change is different. Some people enjoy and are more accepting of it because it provides them with something new and challenging. Others prefer a set routine. They’ve learned what needs to be done and become good at it. Everyone is psychologically wired differently, so responses to the change process will be individually different.

Fear: A fearful response can occur when change is enacted without preparing the affected employees. When change is compelled, without some advance notice, without positive perception for what the change will include and how their jobs/work will be affected, it can cause significant anxiety.

Timing:  Too much change over a short period of time causes resistance. Changes need to be implemented at the right time, and with the right level of understanding what employees may be feeling. As mentioned previously, people often are not provided enough warning to think through the change and the implications.

Poor Communication:  According to psychologist Nick Davis: “The purpose and nature of the change needs to be clear, and openly discussed…. without this dialogue, there will likely be an element of perceived unfairness, as well as a degree of anxiety.” Business psychologist Simon Kilpatrick indicates: “If you’re leaving employees guessing, you’re basically giving them permission to imagine a worst-case scenario.”

Loss:When something new comes, something old gets pushed out, and with that comes feelings of loss. To enable a smooth transition, leaders need to understand that employees may start to grieve the loss of ‘how it’s been’,” explains performance coach Heather Cole.

Feeling Challenged:  When employees feel challenged in a negative way, they can push back by quietly sabotaging the change efforts or even by direct confrontation. Poorly managed change makes people feel overwhelmed trying to adapt to new ways of doing things, new technologies, new procedures, and new working/business relationships. Change is often implemented without adequately ensuring workers have the technical support and skills to adapt comfortably and effectively.

Path of Least Resistance:Not everybody wants to learn new systems, build their skills, or adapt to a new way of working. Why? Because it takes too much damn energy!” says Susy Roberts of People Development Consultancy. “They want business as usual.” Hunter Roberts says: “When people are under pressure, business as usual is the path of least resistance.” Learning to do things differently and refocused priorities increase pressure on people already carrying a workload.

Inadequate Employee Involvement: The best way to help employees buy into change is to involve them in the change decisions. Collaboration reminds employees they are important and go a long way to diminish fear of the unknown. Before making change, consult the people who will be affected. “Change is not something that should be forced onto employees by management,” says Elizabeth Becker, client partner at PROTECH. I think anyone can validate the importance of employee feedback in any project.

Changes that unfairly affect your employees:  Be cognizant that not all changes are good for everyone in the organization. It is critical to think through whether changes unfairly impact workload or time demands. Often managers haven’t considered whether the new demands required by change have been distributed fairly. Resentment can quickly build up, thereby increasing resistance. Once change has been implemented, there needs to be follow up to ensure the change is working as intended.

According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School: “The best tool for leaders of change is to understand the predictable, universal sources of resistance in each situation and then strategize around them.”  

Resistance even to “good change” is complex, but not insurmountable. Change is often uncomfortable, and resistance is normal. By giving some thought to addressing employee concerns, and how change affects them, you can decrease resistance and markedly increase your chances for successful implementation.