Comfort with the Current State: Context for Resistance
Written by Tim Creasey
Change management practitioners and business leaders often underestimate the level of comfort employees have with the current state. The natural and human reaction to change is to resist. Every individual has a threshold for how much change they can absorb. And some employees will resist the change no matter what. Even when individuals can align the change with their self-interest and belief system, the uncertainty of success and fear of the unknown can block change.
Resistance to Change
Resistance to change can spread and become a significant barrier to success. One-fourth of major change initiatives fail because employees are fearful of and resistant to change. Although initial resistance is a natural reaction to change, ongoing resistance left unattended can become a threat to the business and to customers. A critical component of any good change management process will be a program to proactively manage resistance. In order to be prepared to proactively manage resistance, it is important to have context for the resistance and understand the principles of managing resistance.
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Context for Resistance to Change
Managers cannot dictate or control an employee's desire to change. Employees choose. However, that does not mean that managers are powerless to manage change in this step of the process. The elements that may influence a desire to change include:
- Fear of job loss
- Discontent with the current state
- Imminent negative consequences
- Enhanced job security
- Affiliation and sense of belonging
- Career advancement
- Acquisition of power or position
- Ownership for the future state
- Incentive or compensation
- Trust and respect for leadership
- Hope in future state
Personal context for change
Employees evaluate the motivating factors above within the following personal context:
- An employee's personal and family situation (health, financial position, stability, mobility, relationships, etc.)
- An employee's professional career history and plans (successes, failures, promotions, aspirations, years left before retirement, second career potential, etc.)
- The degree that this change will affect them personally (in some cases, even large changes can have only a minimal impact on some employees)
Organizational context for change
Employees also evaluate these positive and negative motivating factors based on:
- An organization's history with change (past change success or failure, the likelihood that this change will really happen, consequences for employees that have resisted change in the past)
- An organization's values and culture (how the organization treats employees and how employees treat one another)
Key principles in Resistance Management
Resistance and comfort
Do not underestimate the power of "comfort" with how things are today. The natural reaction to change is resistance. And every individual has a threshold for how much change they can absorb based on their personal and organizational context for change.
You should anticipate resistance to change as the norm and not the exception. Your goal for change management is not to eliminate resistance, but rather to minimize the impact this resistance has on employees and the business.
Prosci's Flight Risk Model
Prosci’s Flight Risk Model shows the potential impacts of not managing change over time. The longer the organization remains in the “high-stress” risk and flight region (the red-zone), the more extreme will be the consequences for employees, customers and the business.
The two factors that you can influence with effective change management include the time or duration the organization remains under stress, and the degree or depth of that stress.
The goal of effective change management is to achieve the curve shown in the figure above where the organization avoids the initial shock and minimizes or avoids the time in the red-zone. Poor change management is characterized by a rapid rise into the risk and flight zone with the organization remaining in that region for an extended period of time (see the image below).
Key Takeaways in Managing Resistance to Change
Change management practitioners learning about employee resistance should take away three critical lessons. 1) Expect and plan for resistance—don't be surprised by it. 2) Assess resistance based on an individual's natural aversion to change as well as the amount of total change happening at the time. 3) Persistent resistance from mid-level managers is dangerous to the success of your project. Proactive resistance management will be an important part of your change management plans.