Change is an essential part of growth. Changing business practices is not always easy, and leaders are likely to receive pushback from employees when processes and habits are threatened.
Managers and executives alike will need to work closely with their teams to build resiliency and navigate change smoothly. As your team gets used to change, and learns to trust you through the process, it becomes easier for leaders to come up with new plans to move the company forward.
Navigating change requires soft skills like communication and empathy, along with high emotional intelligence levels. Here’s what you can expect when you enact change in your organization and how you can build a resilient team that thrives under it.
Why Do Employees Fear Change?
A fear of change isn’t limited to the workplace. Most people try to prevent change and worry about changes they can’t avoid whether in their personal or professional lives. The fear can manifest itself differently in an office environment and can affect those around you.
Employees Have Different “Psychological Capital” Levels
As you lead your team through change, you are likely working with employees with varying “psychological capital” or “PsyCap” levels. These determine how your employees face different challenges.
In her article at The Conversation, Yvonne Brunetto, who teaches management and HR at Southern Cross University in Queensland, explains what makes up someone’s psychological capital:
Self-efficacy: how confident or self-assured someone is.
Optimism: how positive someone feels about the future.
Hope: how determined someone is to work hard toward a goal.
Resilience: how effectively someone can bounce back from a difficult event.
These factors work together, creating some level of PsyCap for everyone. And each factor is important: Even highly-resilient employees can be a drain on the team if they have no hope or optimism for where the company is going.
Employees Have Multiple Reasons to Avoid Change
Along with varying PsyCap reactions, employees also have different reasons to worry about impending changes. The concerns they experience depend on their backgrounds and emotional insecurities.
Robert Tanner, business consultant and development coach, highlights a few common reasons why employees fight against change or stress out when something new is on the horizon:
Loss of status or job security. The change may affect their place in the organization.
Fear of the unknown. The less your team knows about the change, the more fearful they will become, filling in the blanks themselves with rumors and assumptions.
Organizational politics. Some people resist change to prove that it is wrong for the company and try to lead others to do the same.
Tanner says people don’t resist change when they believe it’s in their best interest. When presented carefully, teams can embrace change as a positive step for the office rather than fight against it or try to avoid it.
For example, a common change fear in the workplace is the addition of new technology or processes because employees aren’t sure how their roles will be affected.
“[Some employees] want to feel needed and indispensable to the department or organisation,” Nancy Anderson, job search and career coach, says. “If they are the expert with a particular system, they feel pushed out when a new system is introduced and the old one is scrapped – it puts everyone on the same level, and they become a less vital member of the team for a while.”
This is why an overworked employee might push back at the idea of cross training. If everyone on the team knows how a system works, that expert employee might feel less secure and vital to the organization, rather than relieved that everyone can share his or her workload.
Expect Initial Resistance to Your Changes
While executives expect stress and pushback from major changes, like team adjustments or downsizing, most leaders aren’t prepared to handle change on a smaller scale.
Organizational development specialist Rosalind Cardinal, who is known as The Leadership Alchemist, says any level of change can affect employees. For example, asking employees to stay later for a meeting can cause distractions as after-work routines are affected. Same with requiring that employees attend a conference; while some might not have issues, the logistics of travel and related stress could paralyze others. Even shuffling desks can cause problems.
Your employees are likely to feel stress and resist change no matter what, and it’s up to management to determine which stressors are worth it to move the company forward.
Create a Response Plan for Resistance
Employee resistance to change can have immediate impacts on your business. Rick Maurer, author of Beyond the Wall of Resistance, reports that 80 percent of CIOs say resistance to change was the main reason tech projects fail, even beating out a lack of skills. Most Fortune 500 CEOs agree, citing resistance as a significant reason that changes they tried to incorporate failed.
“How you respond to employee complaints and initial push back to change can set the tone for the entire transformation,” change communications consultant Beth Archie writes. “If a few complaints come to HR or someone sends an angry email to the CEO and it brings change to a halt, you could end up creating a machine that makes your employees better and better at resisting future change.”
Leaders who stop change based on some initial resistance are essentially rewarding employees for pushing back, and proving that any and all objections are immediately valid and will be acted on.
Vicky Webster and Martin Webster at Leadership Thoughts suggest engaging with employees who are resistant to change and discussing how the change will affect them and how those concerns can be alleviated.
In particular, they encourage people to commit to at least a small contribution to the change. Taking this one step can reduce fears of change as employees don’t have to make a big change all at once. It also turns an adversary into an ally as they take small steps in favor of your plan.
Execute Organizational Change Effectively
When you announce change, half of your team is likely to feel excited and optimistic about the opportunity, while the other half is convinced that their careers and company futures are in jeopardy. Knowing this, you can create a successful plan for change that benefits the majority of your staff
Most people follow the FIRE method of information processing, whether they realize it or not. Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ, says understanding how people use the four-step FIRE way of thinking can provide insight into how your employees process change.
Employees are given some Facts or information.
They Interpret those facts for context.
Those interpretations are often built on emotional Reactions.
Those emotions lead people to determine the expected or desired End.
FIRE reactions often occur when the change has high levels of uncertainty. For example, team members might hear that a new tool will save time and resources, and interpret the information to mean fewer employees will be needed. This is a fearful emotional reaction that leads people to resisting using the new tools or push back against any structural changes.
Carefully Present the Change News to Your Team
To prevent FIRE reactions from blazing out of control, leaders can strategically plan how they want to present and roll out changes within an organization.
Megan Maslanka at Quantum Workplace encourages both team leaders and employees to focus on the facts. Those who significantly fear change often imagine worst case scenarios in unfamiliar situations. Management can reduce water cooler talk by clearly presenting what is going to change and how those changes are expected to affect people.
That being said, you want to avoid presenting too many details at once. Workplace motivation expert Jeff Miller, Ph.D. shares his own story of getting laid off. After hearing the news, his head started spinning, he couldn’t focus, and he was so overwhelmed by the news that he wasn’t able to digest the information following it. The emotional aspects of the news made it so he completely forgot questions related to severance pay or recommendations. The same can be said for employees. Changes can be so stunning that they need time for the news to sink in before they can process the details.
Employers that try to sell a change idea to employees or inundate them with details could overwhelm their team. You should certainly have a plan to enact the change, but also give your team time to process what is going to happen.
Make Sure Your Plan is Airtight
However you decide to enact the change, make sure the plan is clearly laid-out and as foolproof as possible.
Elizabeth Dukes at iOFFICE emphasizes the importance of doing change right the first time: “Many companies fail to successfully implement change because they overload employees and expect near-immediate gratification,” she says.
If you have to back away from an initiative and then try to introduce it again, your team won’t have faith in the plan’s ability to succeed or your ability to execute it correctly.
Furthermore, too many changes or poorly executed changes, can result in “change fatigue.” Podcaster Jillian Pandav defines “change fatigue” as apathy or passive resignation to change. “Simply put, it’s the exhaustion that employees feel when making too many changes at once,” Pandav writes.
Roughly 65 percent of managers and employees have experienced change fatigue, she adds, and this can lead to burnout and disengagement.
Foster a Resilient Company Culture
Change is inevitable, and you can navigate change successfully by building a resilient team. Resilient teams still need guidance through change, but are often less change-phobic than other departments.
There are a few ways employers can encourage employees to help themselves become more resilient to change. Fit for Work lists some good practices to follow:
Develop healthy friendships and family relationships.
Keep a level-head and maintain perspective of the situation.
Nurture a positive self-perception.
Take time to recharge and step back from the situation.
These steps focus on the mental health of those involved, leading to better decision-making and fewer overblown FIRE reactions.
Additionally, leaders can foster resilience in teams during change by becoming resources to their employees. Leaders build organizational resiliency by empathizing with their teams and helping them through difficult challenges.
“Acknowledge your own feelings and take care of yourself, but make the effort to really listen and use empathy to understand what individuals are experiencing,” Lindsay Witcher at RiseSmart writes.
Each employee’s reaction differs based on their resilience levels and also how company changes affect them.
Reap the Benefits of Resiliency
As your team grows more resilient, you may discover additional benefits to having strong employees in your company. Along with adapting to change more easily, your employees will better thrive in difficult times and when faced with significant challenges, TotalWellness founder Alan Kohll says.
“Aside from an ability to bounce back, resilient employees also tend to be ready and willing to learn new skills or take on new roles,” he writes. “Resilient employees also perform better under pressure. They aren’t easily fazed and will find a way to focus and do more with less when the situation calls for it.”
Your employees won’t become more resilient overnight, and they may never feel fully comfortable in the face of change. However, as a leader, you can guide your team through change and build trust with those who work for you. Over time, you may find that changes are easier for most people to manage successfully.