Three Immutable Truths about Resistance to Change (and What to Do About Them)

Albert B. Blixt
Founder and Managing Partner

Laurence N. Smith
Founder and Senior Partner

In our work with college and university senior leaders, a key issue is managing the implementation of major change initiatives.  These are initiatives that impact organizational structure, work processes and the roles and responsibilities of individuals. Examples include departmental reorganizations, centralizing or decentralizing of support services, changes in faculty or staff personnel policies, new ERP or other IT systems, reallocation of resources for organizational mergers or other changes that produce major disruptions.

The question we hear the most is “How can we overcome resistance to this change initiative?” Our goal in this post is to describe the three most common issues underlying resistance and advice for dealing with them.

Resistance means overt or covert behavior that seeks to prevent the implementation of some change.  It comes in many forms. It can arise from norms, values, practices and procedures, beliefs and attitudes that conspire to oppose doing things differently.  The causes however are both individual and collective.

  • Resistance can be structural where there are operational barriers like a collective bargaining agreement or an annual budget or a complex approval process for a change.
  • Resistance can be cultural where traditions, values and practices stand in opposition to the proposed change
  • Resistance can be emotional where a sense of individual or group identity can be threatened or where fear is driven by the uncertainty created by the proposed change.
  • But, mostly, resistance is entirely rational because of the stake that individuals and groups have in the status quo. Changes will be opposed in proportion to the negative impact on their status, authority, autonomy and/or position.

Understanding resistance begins with accepting three immutable truths about how people and organizations react to change efforts.  Your innovation and change strategy must account for these truths and take steps to address them.  Here are the truths and what you can do about them.

Immutable Truth #1: People Support or Resist Change based on How It Affects Them
The desirability of a change is measured through the lens of “how does this affect me?” This is partly an assessment of whether the individual will have a favorable place in the new reality and partly an assessment of how others on their team or department will be affected.

  • Individuals are generally wary of changes that require a change in roles and responsibilities or require new skills to succeed. In general, changes that are perceived as threatening to a person’s role, status or autonomy will be resisted.
  • People will be more accepting of change if it will support values they are committed such as organizational mission, student success, or advancement of social justice issues.
  • Decisions seen as imposed without consultation are less likely to be accepted regardless of how beneficial they might be.
  • Because of past negative experiences, many individuals will automatically think the reorganization will result in the loss of jobs, maybe theirs.
  • Lack of trust in the motivations of senior leadership and immediate managers is a prime cause of mistrust of the change.

What to do

  • Personalize explaining the impact and provide tools for resolving issues.If you don’t, employees may not understand which specifics apply to them, or even how the college is providing support or services to help them cope. For example, in the small group or individual meetings, come prepared with all the necessary details to be able to answer personal questions immediately, rather than creating even more anxiety and aggravation while you assign someone to work out the specifics you didn’t research in advance.
  • Give people a voice in how the change will be implemented. People are less concerned with organizational goals and objectives as they are with having control of their daily work life. In one case, the staff of an entire division were asked to seat themselves in a new work group configuration and asked to discuss, “Will this work for us given what is expected of us?” The group’s response led to some changes that both improved work flow and allayed fears.
  • Demonstrate empathy for persons who will be affected by the change. Make a public commitment to an “honorable off ramp” with assurance that anyone negatively affected by the change will be provided a soft landing wherever possible. This might mean being assigned to another position or offering addition training to prepare them for new demands of their current position.  If that is not possible, work with the persons affected prior to the change to arrange an orderly transition out of the organization.
  • Modify the reward and recognition system for faculty, staff and academic units, and the priorities of the budget and resource allocation so that they actively support the mission and vision of the institution and are sensitive to differences between units and disciplines.

Immutable Truth #2: The more disruptive the change, the more powerful will be the forces to resist it.
Without a compelling case for doing things differently, the inertia of the status quo will prevail. While incremental changes can be integrated into the current state, changes that are disruptive cannot and will be resisted.  Here are some reasons why:

  • It is far easier and less risky to do nothing than to attempt to change. Like everyone else, faculty, administrators and staff are often unwilling to exchange what they already know, even if they are not happy with it, for the unknown which has the potential of being far worse.
  • In higher education, there is a strong assumption that the traditional patterns, structures and methods of education have evolved as a way to ensure the quality of the educational experience. Any divergence from that tradition may be interpreted as sacrificing closely held values for the sake of efficiency, economy or some other goal.
  • There is a belief in a zero sum game within the academy. Individuals are often more committed to their unit or, in the case of faculty to their discipline or department, then they are to their institution. Any shift of resources or autonomy away from their own area is viewed as a loss to be avoided at all costs.
  • Tradition is an extremely powerful force both within and outside of the academy. For example, alumni can be a major force for maintaining the status quo even when their beliefs and attitudes are based on assumptions that are outdated. Just ask any president who has tried to address the overemphasis on athletics or modify the fraternity or sorority system on his or her campus.
  • Faculty and staff unions, while serving a legitimate interest, can also add additional complexity to the change process. In some cases that the wording of collective bargaining agreements can limits flexibility to explore new and innovative instructional designs and formats.

What to do
Make the case for change in terms of the organizational pain, and how the new solution alleviates it. The more information people have, the more they will come to believe the current situation is unsatisfactory.

  • Instead of just announcing a disruptive change, give the background of what’s not working today and why the new plan is the best to get to the desired outcome. Focus on how students and staff have been hurt, how the institution is incurring extra expense, the negative reputational impact — and how the change will help mitigate those problems.
  • Honor the resistance. Recognize that most objections to the change arise out of lack of a shared understanding of the need for the change and skepticism about whether the stated goals can be achieved.  It is easy to assume that objections are baseless or the result of self-interest.  Our experience is that faculty and staff, by and large, care deeply about the success of students and want the university to flourish.  However, A recent survey of college presidents revealed that they ranked students and faculty as among the groups who least understood the challenges facing their institution.
  • Clearly tie institutional mission, vision and priorities to the case for change. This connection must be clearly stated and understood by every staff member, each faculty member and administrator, key political leaders and the public being served. The case for change must be grounded in serving the underlying mission and vision.
  • Prepare all levels of management to explain the change. Provide training and rehearsal time to everyone who will communicate the message. Do not assume they’ll have the right instincts based on a memo or an informational meeting. Managers must believe what they are saying and they must believe their leaders believe it too. Otherwise, to escape their own discomfort, they may deliver the “bad news” while blaming management, either directly or indirectly.

Immutable Truth #3: Change will not happen without a credible, shared way forward
No matter how convincing the case for change; no matter how attractive the vision of the future, the immutable truth is that confusion about what people are expected to do is part of the process.

  • The tendency will be for people to revert to the old way of doing things when it isn’t clear how the new way is going to be established. This is especially true where the management style has been some form of command and control.
  • In the absence of clear direction, people will begin to lose whatever enthusiasm they might have had for the change. For leaders who see clearly what the change will produce, it is hard to recognize how hard it is for others to understand how things are supposed to work.
  • Most people are task oriented and would rather see a concrete action plan that to talk about strategy.

What to do
Before beginning the change journey it is essential for leadership to engage others in laying out the way forward.

  • Create a “change roadmap” with timelines, milestones and metrics that people can relate to. Ideally, the roadmap will be shared widely and updated frequently.
  • Give people as much autonomy as possible in deciding how to implement the change. Remember, people support what they help to create.
  • Alternate planning and action steps that engage the whole organization periodically while focusing on the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle of a learning organization. This means that people will be able to see progress and know how to make course corrections as needed.
  • Celebrate accomplishments, including small and big “wins” in ways that provide recognition to those doing the work.
  • Leaders need to be visible in supporting the change. That means advocating for the change publicly – in person and using every other communication channel available.
  • Recognize that change fatigue is real and allow some time for the organization to pause from time to time to absorb and embed the changes.
  • Finally, communicate, communicate, communicate. Do not assume that people will understand or believe your message.  It must be repeated and reinforced with actions.

Change is hard. It is easy for leaders to believe they have done enough to gain buy-in from those who will be affected.  Following these simple suggestions will increase the odds of success.