Resistance is Futile: Guiding Your Team Through Change

Change is difficult. You’re thinking to yourself, “I’ve seen enough change over this past year and a half to last me a lifetime.” But the other thing about change is that it’s constant. For better or for worse, one thing you cannot avoid is that with all the different roles you play, something at some point is going to be in a state of flux.

Think about all the different changes that have impacted your work life over the course of the pandemic. You learned what it meant to “shelter in place” and “self isolate.”  You had to let staff go due to the economic downturn. Or you were let go yourself. Or your working hours were reduced. You learned how to work from home. Or you continued to go out for work but immersed yourself in supplies of face masks and hand sanitizer. You learned how ride an escalator or elevator without touching anything with your fingers. Now you have a vaccine passport and vaccine mandates, and you are navigating a world that is no longer about working 9 to 5 outside the home, but perhaps a hybrid model thereof.

That’s a lot of change in one paragraph.

If you’re in a leadership position, think about your past experiences with creating change in the workplace, even before the pandemic. Did you achieve 100% acceptance overnight? Not likely. Any type of change, big or small, involves asking staff to make a sacrifice – to give up the “old” ways of doing things. The acceptance doesn’t happen until they’ve had time to accept that the “new” way of doing things is an improvement, especially if they didn’t think there was anything wrong with the “old” way of doing things! It’s just like getting everyone to wear a mask, when they never had to wear one before. Acceptance didn’t happen overnight, and never fully achieved 100% around the globe.

Change vs. Transition

The #1 obstacle to successful change is the poor or ineffective management of the people side of change. As author and organizational development specialist Peter Senge once said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!”  You can plan all the activities and tasks, prepare to manage all the logistics and metrics, but you must attend to the people involved, if you want change to be implemented successfully and sustainably for the long run.

Many of you have heard of William Bridges’ Model of Transition, where Bridges outlined the difference between the external event of change, and the internal process of transition. Successful change management is rooted in helping your staff through their individual l transitions. Resistance happens when we ignore the psychological process of coming to terms with something, in favour of the external events. You can propose a change knowing that it is meant to be positive (e.g., improved reporting procedures, new hours of operation, etc.); but you still need to give your team members time to say “goodbye” to the old practices they are familiar and comfortable with.

Phase 1 of Bridges’ model is referred to as “Ending, Losing, and Letting Go.”  At this point, you have just introduced your staff to the idea of the change. It will be important to watch for a wide range of reactions, including, shock, disbelief, mourning, withdrawal, and avoidance. You may hear responses at this stage such as, “This will never work…” or “There wasn’t anything wrong with the old way…” or “Why can’t things just stay the same?”

Phase 2 is referred to as “The Neutral Zone.” In this middle phase, you will likely watch for anger, hostility, increased absences, a glorifying of the past, and increased mistakes or accidents due to lack of concentration. Staff may be heard saying, “This isn’t fair…” or “It doesn’t make sense…” or “This is too hard to do.”

In the final stage of Phase 3, staff become more open to the change and welcome “The New Beginning.”  In this phase, watch for staff to begin exploring and risk taking, to accept with tentativeness the changes being implemented, some impatience to be done with the process, and also some relief.  You may hear reactions such as, “I’ve got an idea we can try…” and “I guess it’s not so bad…” and “Let’s get on with it.”

How Can We Manage Resistance?

Understand that each staff member is an individual who will go through the phases of transition at their own pace, in their own time. Think about the common things you will hear people say mentioned above, and how you can respond. Keep these tips in mind throughout the overall transition process:

  • Ask for and accept your employees’ reactions
  • Listen and pay attention to what you are hearing
  • Show care and concern
  • Allow people time to grieve and let go of the “old ways” of doing things
  • Respond to their questions and give them plenty of information so they can see the value in the “new ways”

Your Engaged Assignment: Once your message about the external event of change has been broadcasted, create opportunities to check in with individual staff on what else they need. Ask how they are doing and what else could help them feel more supported and surer of themselves as they work toward your collective “new beginning.”