Monday, April 6, 2009

Why People Resist Change

The Apollo 11 spacecraft that carried the first astronauts to the moon burned 99% of its fuel escaping the earth's gravity (plus some atmospheric resistance). The remaining 1% was sufficient for the balance of the 480,000-mile trip to the lunar surface and back. That's an apt analogy for the challenge of organizational change.

The first and greatest obstacle is the gravitational pull of the status quo. People naturally resist change for a variety of reasons. Organizational dynamics often serve to strengthen their grip on the way things are. To get people to relinquish the present state and move on to the way things should be requires an understanding of both organizational "thrust" (the actions that enable change) and "gravity" (the forces that inhibit change). Let's start with the latter.

If you want people to change, you need to go beyond simply telling them how. You need to also uncover why they are apprehensive about it. Just as NASA engineers needed a thorough understanding of gravitational and atmospheric forces to properly design the Apollo rocket, leaders need to understand the human forces that will drag down the launch of their change initiative. Each situation is distinct, but following are some of the most common reasons why people resist change
  • Force of habit. Habits are extremely valuable because they enable us to perform many functions unconsciously, preserving brain power for other tasks. But they are also very difficult to break, and thus to change.

  • Low expectations. Because change is difficult, it's often hard to convince people it's possible. They may lack confidence in management, their coworkers, or the proposed change.

  • Past experiences (good or bad). Past success lulls people into thinking change isn't needed. Past failures often lead people to be skeptical that it will work this time (leading to low expectations).

  • Inadequate perceived personal benefit. Most people view corporate changes through the lens of what it means for them. If they don't see personal benefit, most won't be inclined to support the change, even if it looks good for the company.

  • Fear of diminished competency. Change often forces us to acquire new skills and knowledge, pushing us out of our comfort zone or eroding the strength of our expertise.

  • No sense of urgency. Unless leaders communicate a sense of urgency, people may agree with the change but put it off. There must be motivation to act now.

  • Not enough time or resources. Because we're busy and have other priorities, we may find it impractical to implement change, even though we may be convinced it's both important for the company and beneficial for us personally.

When it comes to change, company leaders have one distinct advantage that NASA engineers didn't--they can reduce the pull of gravity. Understanding why people resist change enables you to address those concerns in ways that can reduce or remove them as obstacles. Even if you don't fully understand the reasons your coworkers resist, simply showing that you genuinely care about their concerns can go a long way toward getting their support.

The opposite is also true. I've witnessed many firms thrusting change on their employees with seeming indifference as to how they are affected or what they think about it. This typically increases resistance, making the change even more difficult to fully implement. Like dealing with a rebellious child, you might get outward compliance. But the inner buy-in that makes change potentially transformational will be practically impossible to obtain.

So we've touched upon two important principles of organizational change. First, you need a compelling reason for change, a sense that the pain of staying the course will be greater than making the change. This helps move people out of their comfort zone. Second, you need to understand specifically what's holding people back so you can remove or reduce those obstacles. In the next few posts, we'll dig deeper into the how-to of change. As I noted in my previous post, the current economic crisis may present just the opportunity you need to make some long-overdue changes at your firm.


John Poole said...

Fear of the unknown always tops my list. When traveling into uncharted water, anxiety increases. And since anxiety is uncomfortable, we tend to avoid it. I think leaders need to emphasize that change is good and no one is at risk if the change is unsuccessful. However, this is much easier said than done.

Mel Lester said...

Good point, John. In my experience, if fear is a major factor it's hard to get anyone to admit it. Most likely, it resides somewhere in the subconscious mind, an uneasy feeling that people often attribute to other factors. But your change strategy should certainly seek to alleviate fear. I think that's why John Kotter found that successful change initiatives typically were grounded in the existing culture, retaining the familiar to anchor the unfamiliar. Thanks for your feedback!