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Columnist: H. James Harrington

Photo: Scott Paton, publisher


Managing Resistance to Change

H. James Harrington


All quality programs, whether TQM, Six Sigma or ISO 9000, require an organization to shift away from the status quo. Invariably, resistance—defined as any opposition to this shift—is a common response. Resistance occurs because people are control-oriented, and when their environments are disrupted, they perceive that they’ve lost the ability to control their lives. Whether it’s expressed overtly or covertly, resistance will begin as soon as major change is initiated.

The amount of resistance generated will vary from person to person depending on his or her frame of reference, which comprises individual values, emotions, knowledge and behavior. Organizational resistance usually takes the form of a key sponsor who doesn’t support the change. Although similar to individual frame of reference, organizational frame of reference is composed of logistics, economics and politics.

Sponsors who drive change tend to think of resistance as an inexplicable but avoidable force that affects people. When resistance occurs, they believe it’s actually a result of somebody’s failure. Typical responses are, "What’s wrong with that person? What’s wrong with that group? Why won’t they support our change effort? There must be something wrong with those people." In fact, such a perspective is a major barrier to successful change. Other barriers include:

• An unclear vision that causes confusion

• A history of poor implementation

• No consequence-management system developed to accompany the change

• Too little time to implement the change

• Lack of synergy

To manage resistance effectively, one must first understand the reasons behind it. When these are understood, managers see that when they disrupt people’s expectations, they also produce resistance.

The "best practice" applicable to resistance is to view it as a natural and understandable human reaction to disruption. As a result, responding to resistance is an inevitable part of managing a major change. The greater the change and the more disruptive it is to the status quo, the stronger resistance will be. This is true not only of changes that are perceived as negative but also of those perceived as positive. In order for change objectives to succeed, resistance must be expected, budgeted and planned for.

It’s important to recognize that there’s a price associated with managing resistance to change. A conscious decision must be made whether to pay that invoice in advance or after the fact. Resistance will always accompany major disruptive change, regardless of how people view it. Truly accepting this fact requires that you also recognize and accept the price tag. If your change project is going to succeed, there’s no choice whether you’ll pay for resistance; the only question is how and when you’ll pay.

Expect resistance and manage it, either through a preventive or healing approach. Paying for prevention means planning and allocating resources in advance for managing resistance, building plans to overcome the phenomenon and building commitment to change objectives. Managing resistance through healing means paying the subsequent maintenance costs associated with changes that are forced on targets. Some of these costs include higher turnover, lower productivity, lower morale, pessimism and distrust of management.

People usually accept change not because they believe in it, but because they have no other alternative. When ensuring compliance to change, there’s a later and greater cost to pay, usually the burden to the organization of hiring additional supervisors and managers to ensure that employees are doing what they’re told.

With a clear understanding of resistance and how it can be paid for, there are numerous actions managers can take in response to it. The first step is to determine if the resistance is an ability deficiency or a willingness deficiency. If it’s the former, managers should identify the additional knowledge and skills required and provide the appropriate education and training.

If it’s a willingness deficiency, the change should be effectively communicated to the targets so that they understand why they’re being asked to change, and later they should be evaluated to see if they’ve accepted the change. Identify any inconsistencies with what’s necessary to motivate people in the direction of the change objectives (i.e., clear vision or committed sponsorship). Analyze existing rewards, recognition, performance measures and compensation. Then develop plans for new rewards, recognition, performance measures and compensation that support the change objectives. Finally, the new consequence management system should be communicated, implemented and enforced.

About the author

H. James Harrington is a former COO of Systemcorp, an Internet-software development company, and former principal at Ernst & Young, where he served as an international quality adviser. He has more than 45 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 20 books. Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com. Letters to the editor regarding this column can be e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com.