Learn to reduce employees' resistance to change.

Change is now a routine part of life, both at a personal and a professional level. In fact, finding an aspect of our lives that isn't changing rapidly may be difficult. American journalist Sydney Harris has accurately observed, "Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better."

Alvin Toffler, author of the classic book Future Shock, gives two different perspectives on change. "Change is not merely necessary to life—it is life," he says. Toffler also states that "Man has a limited biological capacity for change. When this capacity is overwhelmed, the capacity is in future shock." Many in the world of work may argue that we have reached (or exceeded) the limits of our ability to manage change.

A lot of change seems to happen to us (world economics, natural disasters), but in the world of work, we also initiate change (largely, to deal with the changes occurring around us). But leaders have not been adept in successfully implementing organizational change. According to Gallup, more than 70 percent of new initiatives implemented by organizations fail.

In our work life, many seem to have almost become numb to change. In the past, there may have been some arguing and active resistance to proposed (or implemented) change, but the response seems to have become: "We are changing again? What's new?"

This apathy to the fast pace of change is probably not healthy. The actual embracing of the changes are superficial at best. When we don't fully process the implications of the changes for ourselves, for how we conduct business, and for our organization's future existence, poor results are likely to follow.

Change's negative reputation

Managers become anxious when they realize they are going to have to announce upcoming changes to their team members. Why? Because change is almost always viewed negatively by employees. Organizational change requires individuals to change—to complete tasks differently, learn new processes, and to modify communication patterns. And even though change is a common occurrence in life today, most people still respond with some form of resistance—either internally through thoughts and attitudes or externally through their behavior.

Interestingly, the negative reaction to change is common for both longer term employees and new employees. Debbie, an accounting clerk who had been with her firm for more than 15 years, stated, "I know you can't stop change, but it just seems nonstop and in every area of what we do. There's virtually nothing that I do now as part of my job that hasn't changed in some way. I just feel like I'm getting worn down."

Conversely, Seth, who joined a large corporation as a shipping supervisor about a year ago, expressed, "I'm getting frustrated because just as soon as I learn the process and the paperwork, they change it. I've already been through one major software system change, and now they are talking about changing it again."

Understanding resistance

Different models have been developed to understand the nature of resistance, but one of the most practically useful has been proposed by Rick Maurer in his notable book Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Maurer offers three primary reasons why people resist change:

  • "I don't get it." (a lack of information or understanding)
  • "I don't like it." (their emotional reaction to how the change affects them)
  • "I don't like you." (a result of a lack of relationship or trust)

Therefore, resistance to change continues to occur in organizations when the issues at each level have not been addressed—sufficient information and explanation isn't given. Managers don't listen to and acknowledge the emotional impact of the proposed changes on the employees. A general lack of relational connectedness or a lack of trust in the management (related to their motives or competence) is present.

Maurer submits that most managers only address resistance at the informational level, believing that if they explain the context and reason for the change factually, and how the change will occur, that should be sufficient. Typically, this approach isn't effective.

This ongoing resistance can irritate leaders. Raul, the project manager in charge of implementing systemic changes in his division, complained, "What do these people want? We've told them why we need to make these changes. We've explained how it will make things easier for them. And I've outlined a specific process for how we are going to implement the plan over time. What else do they need?"

Many leaders believe successful organizations are the result of wise decisions (and implementation), and good decisions come from accurate information. Thus, they tend to focus on facts and data. But when dealing with people (employees), simply having the facts isn't sufficient.

Resistance to change derives from employees' emotional reactions to how their lives will be affected, and resistance is influenced by the level of trust in relationships. A deeper resistance remains even when they understand the facts of the situation. For example, Erin reported to her supervisor: "I know this new direction and way of doing things makes sense intellectually. Eventually, the workflow will be smoother, there will be less confusion, and it should make us more efficient. But I still don't like it—partly because it feels like the changes are being shoved down my throat."

When staff feel appreciated, resistance diminishes

Laying a groundwork of appreciation with your colleagues can go a long way in helping them approach organizational changes with a more open mind. Interestingly, when employees feel truly appreciated for what they do and who they are, resistance at all three levels—information, emotional reaction, and relational trust—can be reduced significantly.

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First, when employees feel positively about themselves at work (as a result of feeling appreciated), they are able to hear the information presented about upcoming changes more clearly. They do not have the extra "noise" of internal distractions that gets in the way of being able to listen and hear the facts presented.

A sense of feeling valued, even in the midst of significant organizational change, can help lower employees' initial emotional reactions. The emotional impact of change softens when a foundation of security and acceptance is already in place. Responses of intense anxiety (often communicated in a way that is interpreted as anger), fear, or confrontational disagreement become less frequent.

Keira shared in a team meeting with her supervisor, "This whole 'change thing' scares me. I'm not sure if it will work and I'm afraid that eventually my job won't be needed. But, Lisa, I know you work for what is best for all of us and if you say we should do it, I'll go along even though I have my doubts."

Feeling appreciated creates energy for change

Resistance takes energy (think about how tired you become after being outside on a windy day). Since each of us has a limited amount of physical and emotional energy, resistance consumes energy needed for other tasks, including implementing the changes ourselves. When resistance diminishes, more energy becomes available for constructive tasks.

Additionally, communicating authentic appreciation among colleagues injects positive energy into a workplace. People become more energized. They have a greater capacity for creative problem solving and persevering through difficult tasks. Team members work together more effectively.

Therefore, when employees feel appreciated, the negative resistant forces within the workplace decrease, and positive energy also is created—which results in significantly more emotional resources to focus on implementing the changes themselves.

Appreciation and employee recognition are not the same

Almost 90 percent of all organizations have some form of employee recognition activities, but many employee recognition programs are not effective in helping individual team members feel truly valued. Three of the most common employee responses to employee recognition are apathy ("I don't go to the events; they have no relevance to me"), sarcasm ("It's a big political show; they just pass the award around to each department"), and cynicism ("They don't give a rip about us; they only do this to make themselves look good to the board").

To be fair, employee recognition programs originally weren't designed to help individuals feel valued. Instead, they were created to acknowledge and reward desired performance. And when designed and implemented correctly, they do an excellent job of rewarding and increasing employees' performance levels.

While recognition focuses on employees reaching defined goals, appreciation may or may not focus solely on performance issues. This is important for two reasons: Performance-based recognition tends to miss many team members who are not high performers; and, after a while, employees tend to resent that the sole focus of their value is based on performance. A unique contribution of communicating appreciation is that it allows for positive interactions to occur with your middle-level performers. Otherwise, solid team members (but not necessarily your top performers) may rarely, if ever, receive any positive attention. Second, appreciation can be communicated for desirable characteristics (a cheerful personality or remaining calm in an intense interaction, for example) that do not necessarily show up on a quarterly report.

During the past three years, we have worked with a large telecommunications company in training supervisors and frontline staff in how to effectively communicate authentic appreciation to one another. The company was then acquired by another firm, and major changes were implemented across the whole organization. Leaders, including middle-level managers and upper-level executives, observed and repeatedly commented on how much more smoothly the staff who had been trained in authentic appreciation adjusted to the changes than the divisions that did not have this foundation established.

Ideas to get started

To establish a foundation of authentic appreciation, first find out where you are with regard to employees feeling appreciated. You can review the past year's employee engagement survey to see how your team responded to questions about feeling valued and appreciated. Alternatively, Appreciation at Work has created a brief 20-item rating scale with a quiz that can be taken anonymously to assess the level of appreciation in a workplace. Or you can get input from key team members, asking them individually, "What is your sense of how appreciated (or not) you think the team feels?"

Next, obtain resources that can help you begin to communicate authentic personal appreciation. Take small steps to begin to share your appreciation for the individuals with whom you work and what they do that you value. Note that individualized communication ("Tom, thanks for … ) is more effective than group messages ("Way to go, team!")

Change happens

Adjusting to change is difficult for most employees, and usually involves negative reactions and resistance. Understanding that there are multiple types and levels of resistance facilitates addressing the issues in each area. When employees feel authentically appreciated for what they do and who they are, resistance to change at all three levels diminishes, freeing up (and creating) positive energy within the organization to adapt and implement the needed changes.

Maybe we can get to the point where we can refute Harris's belief that we "hate change and love it at the same time" by using appreciation to be better prepared for change and moving successfully through it.