How to Identify Resistance to Change: Assessing the Signs & Symptoms

How to Identify Resistance to Change: Assessing the Signs & Symptoms
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What Are the Warning Signs of Resistance to Change?

Just as a physician relies on his or her stethoscope to glean important information about the health of the patient, a project manager needs to use communication tools to assess the emotional health of the employees during the change process. A project manager wears many hats during a change management process, including the hat of a mentor to help employees deal with the emotional stress of having their comfortable routines unraveled. As a change agent, the manager needs to keep a vigilant watch for these warning signs that employees are having difficulty in adapting to the change process:

  • Unexplained physical illnesses - Are workers complaining of increased headaches, muscle aches, and other physical ailments which cannot be explained by conventional medicine?
  • Increased absenteeism - Are people arriving later and leaving earlier? Are the stellar attendees missing work for the first time?
  • Breakdowns in constructive communication - Are employees speaking in hushed tones? Is rumor spreading overshadowing the facts about the implications of the change?
  • Low productivity - Do your employees appear to be spinning their wheels – looking busy but producing little or no work product?
  • Narcissism - Has the team spirit been so dampened that everyone is doing their own thing without much direction or purpose? Are there more turf battles or EEOC complaints as employees try to better positions themselves for the change?
  • Lack of morale and motivation - Do people appear lethargic, distant, and unwilling to undertake new projects or responsibilities?

These physical manifestations are the symptoms of resistance to change and confirm the need to address the human factor to change as well as the technical or structural requirements needed during the implementation stage. Resistance to change is a normal reaction and should be expected, but the change agent needs to understand that simply treating the symptoms of employees' resistance will not be enough to lead them through the process. These symptoms have underlying causes that spring from unexpressed feelings of anger, betrayal, anxiety, insecurity, loss, confusion, and most importantly stress. Understanding these underlying causes for the resistance to change is the first step in developing preventive and curative measures.

Can Resistance to Change Be Prevented or Cured?

Change managers should understand that resistance to change cannot be completely prevented or wiped out in the workplace. Nor should they assume that if the signs of resistance are ignored, the resistance will run its course and peter out over time. However, the change manager can be proactive in analyzing resistance to change and then take steps to make the transition easier for workers until they have regain enough self-confidence to embrace or at least accept the change. The first step is to create a supportive emotional environment in which the concerns of employees are heard, treated with respect, and properly acknowledged. To alleviate some of the pent up stress felt by workers, the change manager should:

  • Identify who is losing what, particularly who is losing authority and the ability to utilize their specialized knowledge or expertise.

  • Acknowledge these losses and give praise for what employees have contributed and achieved with respect to these responsibilities.

  • Expect and accept the mixed emotions from workers as they navigate through the phases of change.

  • Allow negative feelings to be expressed during individual consultations or more openly at staff meetings.

  • Hold celebrations or ceremonies to break with the past.

During this period, the change manager can also be effective by developing a regiment for employees to give them the stability lost from the break with their familiar routines. Here are a few suggestions to create structure and support for employees at the onset of a change initiative:

  • Clearly identify the need for change and be honest about how the changes will affect employees.

  • Share information honestly and fully to employees, including areas of uncertainty. Talking about the unknowns can be just as reassuring to employees because it gives an impression that management is looking at the situation from every angle.

  • Help set priorities, short-term goals, and planning milestones.

  • Reward and praise publicly and frequently those who attempt the new ways.

  • Identify areas for improvement, assess learning needs, and tailor training to meet individual needs.

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