The Worst Types of Resistance to Change That Get in the Way of HR Efforts (and What To Do About Them)
By Reut Schwartz–Hebron
Table of Contents
HR leaders are often responsible for perhaps the single most important component for orchestrating organizational change: overcoming resistance to change.
Resistance has many shades and colors. It may be direct and confrontational, passive, or even invisible. When people say – and even believe – that they want to cooperate but their cooperative attitude is not backed up by needed actions, resistance to change is likely involved.
Managers tend to look to HR executives to help them overcome change resistance in situations such as dealing with a difficult employee or supporting the goals of a strategic initiative.
Just as often, however, HR executives find themselves struggling to get a change-resistant manager to cooperate, or to get seemingly cooperative managers to actually execute needed changes.
While there are many change-resistance responses, some are worse than others. Here are the top three types of change resistance, along with why they are so difficult to overcome and some thoughts on what you can do about them.
Doubtful analyst resistance to change
This type of change resistance is exhibited as skepticism, dismissive behavior, argumentativeness and overall disagreement.
People who resist change in this way believe there is a very clear distinction between right and wrong, which creates rigidity and often leads them to treat others with superiority.
Doubtful analyst resistance blocks teams from optimizing productivity in many ways, but perhaps the most painful is the negativity that ultimately halts progress. Instead of focusing on what could work, or on how to build agreement, teams or individuals in which doubtful analyst change resistance predominates focus on what isn’t working and why others are wrong.
Example–doubtful analyst change resistance in an IT department
An example of doubtful analyst resistance occurred when a client in the security software industry was given the task of improving customer care levels in his organization’s IT department. His efforts met with glazed looks and dismissal. People in the IT department simply couldn’t see why customer care would have anything to do with them.
In their rigid viewpoint, that’s what customer service staff was for. It wasn’t in their own job descriptions. To them, prioritizing customer care above functionality didn’t make sense, and therefore they dismissed it and refused to cooperate.
Overcoming doubtful-analyst change resistance
Frequently, to overcome change resistance, one must address the way people resist. One of the most important changes doubtful analysts need to undergo is to “rewire their brains” to see reality from different perspectives, allow seemingly contradictory truths to co-exist. This way, they can see that their perspective may be right, but that doesn’t mean the perspective of those in the organization who are pursuing the change is necessarily wrong.
To generate a change in customer care values in the IT team mentioned above, the client first needed to support the IT team to engage differently with their change resistance.
Rewiring the brain to respond differently to something as fundamental as seeing different points of view is not trivial. It requires reinforcing relevant experiences to create new response patterns that are stronger than the old “dismissive” and “one sided” responses and must be supported by a deeper understanding of how the brain works.
The biggest obstacle getting in the way of people’s ability to change is learning to follow the stages the brain needs to go through in order to acquire new response patterns.
For people to change they need to learn how to go through five stages:
- Define the goal of the change in a way that will motivate them, in this case the goal was new customer care behaviors and the motivation was to comply with the declared expectations of their superiors (people can change even if their initial motivation is more complacent than committed, but they need some motivation to get started)
- Define the new experiences that will lead to desired results. For people to acquire new response patterns and change the way they respond to change, people first need to define new patterns in experience terms. The “intellectual” or “knowledge-based” definition of seeing that different points of view can be valid in principle is very different than the experience-based definition of being able to truly see different points of view as valid in a situation being personally experienced.
The latter is acquired by working with an expert and reviewing examples and case studies. Initially, after sharing the knowledge-based definition, teams almost always have a hard time thinking of examples that are aligned with the new desired response pattern. At this stage, doubtful-analyst people find it almost impossible to give examples in which more than one point of view was valid because their mind is not wired to notice those examples. They must learn to be able to readily provide such examples.
- Overcome resistance triggered by the need for change by practicing choices in actions that reflect the change, continuing to reinforce new patterns despite resistance. Resistance is actually helpful for change because without resistance there is no choice to do something differently and hence change is less likely to be permanent.
At this stage, the task the team has to meet is kept small enough so that it is very easy to hold the team accountable and make sure they keep making little steps that reinforce in practice the new response pattern. It is this stage, reinforcing choice in action, that gives the brain the ability to make the new response pattern stronger than the old one.
- Create Sustainability so that the acquired new response pattern won’t fade away. Old response patterns were reinforced in the brain for years. Each time teams practice a new response pattern it is further reinforced in the brain. The key to sustainability is creating enough experience based reference points so that the new pattern is strong enough to compete with old patterns.
- Application is the fifth and final stage. Here the new response pattern, after it has been clearly defined and generalized in acquisition so it is strong enough to compete with old patterns, is now applied to the specific goals.
Once the team acquired new response patterns and thus became able to see and understand multiple points of view, specifically, that customer care was important to their jobs, it was able to execute on the new customer care values.
Emotional oscillator resistance
This type of resistance is characterized by an outburst of aggressive, overly dramatic, impatient, and exaggerated behavior, followed by withdrawal, as well as a tendency to jump quickly to action without thinking things through.
Add to this type a rich variety of control -driven manipulations designed to take the spotlight off the need to change.
Emotional oscillator resistance blocks teams from optimizing productivity mainly by:
- Not being open to discussing the needed changes.
- Refusing to accept feedback.
- Creating an environment in which a pushy minority dominate a submissive majority through fear-based dynamics.
Example– emotional oscillator resistance in a hospital
An HR executive in the health industry was trying to support a change in the behavior of the head of one of the hospital’s departments. This senior doctor’s teaching style and interpersonal interactions were described as: “demeaning, impatient, harsh, and directive.”
When presented with the need to make changes, the senior doctor claimed that the way other staff members described him was “ludicrous” – and that it was they who need to improve their performances, not he.
Overcoming emotional-oscillator change resistance
To create a breakthrough in results when working with emotional oscillator teams or individuals, one of the most important things to change first is the relationship these individuals are wired to have with control and responsibility.
Instead of trying to get things done by gaining and exercising strict control over other people, emotional oscillators need to develop the ability to influence other people with a more effective version of supervision and direction, which requires that they effectively listen and integrate other people’s needs into their considerations.
Since confronting emotional oscillators about relevant changes immediately and directly leads to mountains of change resistance, it’s important to first get them to develop and reinforce new patterns of responding to change using neutral examples and case studies.
Getting the senior doctor to cooperate was not easy. The key was focusing on a new way of responding to change away from any direct threat. To do that the goal is first defined with great honesty but in a way that provides a genuine benefit for both sides.
In this case, the leadership team was very clear about the complaints and their need to see improvement (it is vital to maintain honesty in this process, otherwise it feels manipulative and it won’t work). The main focus, however, was on the benefits to the senior doctor. Wouldn’t he want his team to meet his performance standards? If he could invest in a solution that would get both what his team wants and what he wants, would he be willing to spend approximately 15 hours over the next several weeks to achieve that?
Sometimes managers like this senior doctor are not willing to cooperate with this process. It’s said that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, and that is certainly true when it comes to getting people to change. This process isn’t designed to force anyone; instead it is set to make the environment ripe for change, making sure it’s a really hot day, letting the horse build enough of a workout, and making sure the water is clear and fresh, to follow through on the analogy.
As the senior doctor started seeing that new response patterns gave him effective tools for better achieving what he needed, he was able to let go of his old patterns. Once the new response to change was acquired, the senior doctor changed how he interacted with change and, as a result, how he interacted with people.
We may think of pleasers as people who can easily change, because their motivation is to meet the expectations of others. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Pleasers are extremely difficult to change; far more, in fact, than the other two types discussed above.
The motivation for change with pleasers is external, completely passive, and leaves the responsibility for choice to others (whom they will then follow in order to please them). Because pleasers are followers, they can’t be relied upon to implement changes in the face of resistance by others. If you try to get them to change their response patterns, they will happily cooperate -but changes they make will be short-lived unless everyone they try to please goes along with the changes.
Example– pleaser resistance in a small IT company
A CEO in a small IT company was looking to get his leadership team to change their communication patterns. He wanted them to be more assertive in holding each other accountable and setting healthy boundaries with clients to avoid over-promising service, and in building accountability in the sales team.
The leadership team openly discussed these issues. They admitted the need to change and seemed very cooperative , but their talk was not being followed by lasting actions. Team members were not changing, and leaders were passive and timid in the face of this inaction.
Overcoming pleaser change resistance
Pleasing teams can move away from this highly passive way of resisting, but they need to acquire a new way of responding that we call KindExcellence™.
This is an emotional ability to balance the need for connection and togetherness with the need to maintain boundaries and communicate expectations. To get the team to acquire this new response pattern, the team explored examples and case studies that are aligned with KindExcellence™.
As these case studies were initiated by the team and reinforced in the brain as new experience, the brains of team members literally started to create a new default response pattern.
In the case of pleasing teams, the need to maintain harmony becomes so important that it trumps assertiveness and expectations.
With this new emotional ability in place, however, after learning which steps the brain needs to go through in order to acquire change in a lasting way, in only a few weeks the leadership team developed the levels of accountability and assertiveness the organization was trying to achieve. The results in the team’s interactions with clients and with the sales team were most satisfactory.
There are, of course, many other types of change-resistance responses that block HR leaders from being able to provide the needed change support to both managers and teams.
Identifying which type of resistance to change is blocking either a team or an individual is an important first step so that you can know which strategy would best serve the situation.
Whether it’s getting people to acquire new values as part of a culture change, resolving a conflict, or getting teams to execute best practices, understanding the type of resistance you are facing and how to overcome it is of vital importance.