How to Overcome Resistance in the Workplace

By Pedro Hernandez | Posted September 05, 2013

Is resistance holding back your business?

If new initiatives seem to wither on the vine and best laid plans go nowhere, these are signs that your workforce is resisting change. While not all resistance is bad, a failure to adapt and change in business can have disastrous consequences.

"Studies have shown that about 70 percent of change in an organization fails because of resistance," says Rick Maurer, an organizational consultant and author of Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Businesses that cling to business processes, market strategies and technologies that have long passed their expiration dates run the risk of getting smoked by their more nimble, less change-averse competition. (Blockbuster versus Netflix, anyone?)

Let's explore and some steps to identifying the sources of resistance in your organization and tearing down its hurdles.

Tips That Make Resistance Futile

1. Learn to spot resistance

What's one of the biggest signs that your employees resist change? "In-your-face criticism," says Maurer, is "a not-so-subtle sign that they see things differently." Obvious, perhaps, but also remain on the lookout for more low key indicators of resistance rearing its head.

Ironically, Maurer suggests that you keep alert for easy agreement. After all, that's what you want as a manager, right?

If you find that members of your team jump on the bandwagon a little too quickly, it could be a sign that they are so keen on cooperating— or not ruffling feathers—that they don't fully appreciate what they're saying yes to. Beware the easy "yes" that later turns into a long, hard-fought battle to get results.

2. Discover why people are resisting

In Maurer's experience, resistance boils down to three reasons, each ranked by level of severity:

  1. "I don't get it."
  2. "I don't like it."
  3. And, perhaps most awkward of all, "I don't like you."

When a change, a project or a new initiative can't seem to get off the ground, it's likely that a team member harbors one of these outlooks.

3. Address the issue

To fix a Level 1 problem (I don't get it), "change how you give your message," suggests Maurer. Don't bother explaining it again; they heard you the first time. Generally, this type is the easiest to fix by recalibrating your approach or with some additional education or training.

When facing a Level 2 issue (I don't like it), realize that there is something about an idea or proposal that scares the team member. Maurer suggests "stepping in their shoes" and tailoring your approach in a way that alleviates their fears.

If a Level 3 problem rears its head (I don't like you), deal with it head on. "Just ask," he says. "If they give you a polite answer, you need to dig deeper." Typically, you'll find, it's simply a matter of trust.

Of course, if "they report to you, that may become harder to do," says Maurer. In that case, a short and sweet anonymous survey with a comment area will help you discover reasons behind the lack of trust.

4. Evaluate your progress

How do you know if you're successfully tearing down the walls of resistance at your workplace?

Meetings can offer you some insight. If your team makes progress and you results, it's a sign that change has taken root. Consistent attendance is also a good barometer. If you see a revolving cast of characters—like assistants subbing for managers—or spotty participation, it's time to revisit tips 2 and 3.

Finally, pay attention to the use of pronouns. When people start taking ownership of the initiative, says Maurer, their language changes and their conversations will feature fewer instances of "you" and "they" and a lot more of "we" and "us."

Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.

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