Culture Shift: Change, Part 1

Gustavo Grodnitzky Organizational Culture Leave a Comment

One of the most often questions I’m asked is: “If what you are recommending is so good for culture and everyone in it then why are we getting so much resistance to change?”

There is no single reason, but there is an overarching concept to keep in mind when it comes to resisting change. People don’t fear change – people fear loss. If you go to an employee who makes $50,000 a year and say to them, “Congratulations! Your new salary is $100,000 a year!” That’s a change most people will not resist. People don’t fear change – people fear loss (or even the perception, possibility, or potential for loss).

Change, by definition, disrupts the status quo and often leads to discomfort, stress, and anxiety. These are the factors that contribute most to resistance to change. Any attempt to implement change has a greater chance of success if the culture leaders understand the reasons for employees’ resistance to change or fear of loss. Effective culture leaders do not downplay resistance to change or perceive it as simply a discipline problem. Strong cultures can see resistance as energy that can be redirected to support change. Below are data-based findings of the most common reasons why people resist change.

Why People Resist Change

Uncertainty: For humans, there is no greater fear than the fear of the unknown. Lack of information about a change initiative creates a sense of uncertainty. A proposed change has a much better chance of being accepted if it is presented with a timeframe and structure so that members of the culture can accurately develop expectations as to what will come next.

Threats to one’s self-interest: A culture member’s self-interest in protecting his or her power, position, prestige, pay, competence, or comfort are all major reason for opposing change. For example, changes in job design or new technologies may require knowledge or skills not currently possessed by certain members of the culture. This can be experienced as loss of one or more of the aforementioned.

Distrust of leadership: The absence of trust (based on reliability, openness, competence, and concern – as discussed in Culture Trumps Everything and earlier posts of this blog) will cause people to resist change even if there are no obvious threats. Change will be resisted if people suspect that there are hidden agendas management is not revealing (lack of openness). Trust is a valued construct and experience that all members of a culture must sustain to maintain relationships, particularly through the process of change.

Perception that change is not necessary: People may resist change if the leadership has failed to communicate a real need for change and urgency. This is particularly true in cases where employees believe that current strategies, processes, and culture are successful and there is no clear evidence of serious problems in the near future. The culture you have is currently working for some of the members of your culture. They are the ones who will feel they have the most to lose.

Perception that change will fail: Any change that requires radical changes from old ways of doing business will likely be seen by employees as unlikely to succeed (potential loss of success, money, job, etc.). Additionally, if there have been instances of past failures or initiatives that have fallen by the wayside, there may be residual cynicism about future change.

Perception of manipulation: When people perceive that change is an attempt by others to control them, or it is self-serving, or it is being lead insincerely (again, lack of openness), they will resist. In this case, if people are given a voice in determining and implementing change, this resistance can be diminished.

Keep cultivating your culture!