Understanding and Managing Resistance to Change

Coach’s Corner
CSPE Newsletter

Understanding and managing resistance to change

Every leader leads change at some point.  Change is essential, inevitable, and leads to progress and unlocks possibilities.  However, change is rarely accepted readily.  In fact, the gatekeepers of change are the people involved; and people naturally resist change. The goal is not to eliminate resistance; we should expect and plan for it. 

There are many reasons for resistance to change. 

  1. Fear – This is the most common, and the most powerful, cause of resistance.  It is natural and normal.  However, fear distorts perception, and can prevent people from performing at their best and sometimes be self-fulfilling.  As a leader, your role is to counter fear with reality, helping people refocus, remember past successes, and emphasize their skills and strengths to build their confidence.
  2. Powerlessness – People do not resist change as much as being changed. When change is imposed, people can feel powerless and victimized, and react with anger and resentment. Thus, it is critical for you as a leader to involve them in the change process and help them take ownership.  Also, allow people to express their natural disappointment and sense of loss.  Initiate two way conversations; listen.
  3. Inertia – People are creatures of habit, and resist change because it means effort; it feels easier to stay with the status quo. People tend to overestimate the effort required. As a leader, you can use concrete demonstrations to show the real effort required.  Identify and start with quick doable tasks, use humour, reward small changes.  It is also important to be clear about what will change and what will not change, to balance the process and reduce anxiety.
  4. Absence of self interest – People need to understand the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) to support change.  This is a powerful resistance driver. People automatically respond to change from the perspective of their own self-interest; if these interests are not addressed, resistance follows. It is not easy to focus on long term gains, or let go of our basic needs for safety and security.  As a leader, you need to strongly emphasize the personal benefits of change, not just what change will achieve but how. Don’t assume that you know what benefits people want; ask them.  Also, don’t assume that they will recognize the benefits; tell them.

The successful leader must be prepared for this resistance; and anticipate, understand and manage it effectively. Resistance implies energy, which can be redirected towards forward momentum. 

As a leader, one must have empathy for how people manage change.  Some react with excitement and anticipation, while others feel threatened and afraid.  It helps to remember my 90:10 Rule – that a small part (10%) of such reactions are due to the current situation; much of it (90%) has been developed and fine-tuned over time through past experiences, and are mechanisms unconsciously created  to help the person cope, even though they may be blocking progress now.  This helps us to see the resistance as a problem to solve, not a character flaw to judge.  Giving people opportunities to speak openly and express thoughts and feelings about change assists in dealing successfully with perceived problems.

The number one reason that major initiatives fail is because people are fearful and resistant to change. As a result, it is crucial to understand resistance and work with it. Focusing on helping and supporting people through change will enable you to mitigate the negative consequences of the change process – the decline in productivity and the increase in resistance.  Essentially, change happens through people.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.