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
• 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
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
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.
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.
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