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Identifying Opponents to Change is Harder than it Looks

Devising and pushing through large scale change will be a feature of corporate life for years to come; it's vital to work out which employees are most skeptical, and then to address these concerns

Change management is a hard but necessary part of running a big business. Especially as the average big firm has undertaken five company-wide changes in the past three years and three-quarters of those firms expect more change than that in the future.

What’s even more worrying for the world’s executives is that only one third of change efforts are a clear success, and a half are clear failures, according to CEB data. A crucial part of making these types of projects a success is to engage employees and discuss the approach with them. Change is a lot more likely to be a success if it isn’t just imposed from the top down.

Kellogg School of Management professors Sally Blount and Shana Carroll recently described two key conversations in the Harvard Business Review that senior managers should have with their employees before implementing a big change project. These are identifying the sources of resistance to change and then persuading the resistors. When it comes to identifying the resistors, they point to three common reasons why people resist.

They say, “Even if you’ve done your homework and have engaged a broad range of stakeholders in determining the new direction for your organization, team, or project, there are undoubtedly going to be people who disagree on substantive grounds. … A second universal source of resistance is the human need for respect, which frequently heightens during periods of change. This is especially true of employees who have been with an organization for a long time or have held a good deal of influence at some point in the past (and believe they still do).

“Another reason people might resist is simply because they are feeling rushed. They don’t have enough time to digest the new direction or cope with the situation emotionally.”

Make Sure You’ve Got the Right People

While Blount and Carroll offer some helpful suggestions for how to engage with different types of resistance to change, their article seems to overlook how challenging it can be to correctly identify resistors.

Vocal criticism is certainly the conventional indicator of change resistance, but it is by no means the only manifestation. Many resistors are often silent; they feel negative about the change but don’t express it to peers or their manager. In fact, 71% of employees who resist change are not identified as resistors by their organization, while 53% of employees who are identified as resistors actually aren’t, according to CEB analysis.

This misidentification of what counts as resistance often stems from overlooking silent resistors and equating productive skepticism with resistance. Managers should identify resistors based on their on-the-job behaviors, not just their questions or concerns — and then, as Blount and Carroll suggest, invite employees to articulate their anxieties and questions to make any change project more likely to be a success.


More On…

  • Change Management

    Learn more about CEB's extensive work on change management and the role that different corporate functions can play in making change projects a success at their company.

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