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Five tips for: Managing resistance
From the "Five tips" tutorial series

During the summer of 2009, Prosci will be releasing a number of "Five tips" tutorials. These tutorials will provide simple, actionable steps to improving change management application. Each tutorial will focus on a particular element of change management, including:

  • Five tips for: Succeeding in change management
  • Five tips for: Sizing your change management efforts
  • Five tips for: Better communications
  • Five tips for: Managing resistance

This "Five tips" tutorial looks at managing resistance. The tips come directly from practitioner experience and benchmarking data from Prosci's six benchmarking studies conducted over the last 12 years (Note: the 2009 edition of Best Practices in Change Management will be released this summer).


Five tips for: Managing resistance

  1. Do change management right the first time
  2. Expect it
  3. Address it formally
  4. Identify the root causes
  5. Engage the "right" resistance managers

- Tutorial highlights -

Five tips for: Managing resistance

  1. Do change management right the first time - effective change management can eliminate many of causes of resistance before it occurs
  2. Expect it - do not be surprised by resistance, expect it and plan for it
  3. Address it formally - incorporate resistance management planning in all phases of your change management strategy and plan development
  4. Identify the root causes - make sure that you aren't simply responding to the symptom, but really addressing what is causing the resistance
  5. Engage the "right" resistance managers - senior leaders, managers and supervisors are the "right" people in the organization to manage resistance


1. Do change management right the first time

Much of the resistance faced by projects can be avoided if effective change management is applied on the project from the very beginning. While resistance is the normal human reaction in times of change, good change management can mitigate much of this resistance. Change management is not just a tool for managing resistance when it occurs, it is most effective as a tool for activating and engaging employees in a change. Capturing and leveraging the passion and positive emotion surrounding a change can many times prevent resistance from occurring - this is the power of utilizing structured change management from the initiation of a project.

Participants in the 2009 benchmarking study commented on the fraction of resistance they experienced from employees and managers that they felt could have been avoided with effective change management (see graph below). Participants cited that much of the resistance they encountered could have been avoided if they applied solid change management practices and principles. The moral here is: if you do change management right the first time, you can prevent much of the resistance from ever occurring.



Consider the following change management activities:

  • Utilize a structured change management approach from the initiation of the project
  • Active and visible participation by senior leaders
  • Advocacy by management levels including middle managers and front-line supervisors
  • Communications that describe the need for change, the impact on employees and the benefits to the employee (answering "What's in it for me?" or WIIFM)

Each of the four change management tactics, all of which are part of a structured change management approach, directly address some of the main sources of resistance and can actually prevent resistance from ever happening if they happen early in the project lifecycle. Front-line employees understand the "why" behind the change and see the commitment from leaders throughout the organization. In many cases, this will prevent resistance from occurring later in the project when it can adversely impact benefit realization, project schedules and budget.


2. Expect it

Do not be surprised by resistance! Even if the solution a project presents is a wonderful improvement to a problem that has been plaguing employees, there will still be resistance to change. Comfort with the status quo is extraordinarily powerful. And fear of moving into an unknown future state creates anxiety and stress, even if the current state is painful. Project teams and change management teams should expect resistance and work to address it and mitigate it - but they should never be surprised by it.

Current research on the function of the brain shows that resistance is not only a psychological reaction to change but actually a physiological reaction (see the "The Neuroscience of Leadership" by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz for more information). To act in a new way requires more "power" for the brain - the physiological reaction when presented with a new way of doing something is to revert back to what the brain already knows. Human beings can adapt their behavior, but it is a difficult and painful process - even for the brain itself.

A second aspect of expecting resistance is to look at likely sources of resistance when a project is being initiated. All too often, a project team will reflect back on resistance that was experienced and say "we knew that group was going to resist the change," but nothing was done to address this upfront in the project. When the project is getting started, be proactive and specific about where resistance is likely to come from and the likely objections that drive this resistance. Then, act on this knowledge ahead of time before the resistance impacts the project. These are some likely sources of resistance for most any project:

  • Employees that are highly invested in the current way of doing work
  • People who helped create the current way of doing work that will be replaced
  • Employees who expect more work as a result of the change
  • Those who advocated a particular alternative, say Option B, when Option A was ultimately selected
  • People who have been very successful and rewarded in the current way of doing work

Each of these groups are likely sources of resistance and should be addressed proactively in the project lifecycle with targeted tactics for mitigating these objections.


3. Address it formally

Managing resistance should not be solely a reactive tactic for change management practitioners. There are many proactive steps that can be used to address and mitigate resistance that should be part of the change management approach on a project.

Resistance is addressed in all three phases of Prosci's organizational change management methodology.

  • In Phase 1 - Preparing for change: During the creation of the change management strategy, anticipated points of resistance and special tactics are generated based on the readiness assessments that are part of this phase.  

  • In Phase 2 - Managing change: The resistance management plan is one of the five change management plans created - along with the communication plan, sponsorship roadmap, coaching plan and training plan. These levers all focus on moving individuals through their own change process and addressing the likely barriers for making the change successfully. The resistance management plan provides specific action steps for understanding and addressing resistance.

  • In Phase 3 - Reinforcing change: In the final phase of the process, feedback is collected to understand employee adoption and compliance with the new workflows and processes prescribed by the change. Evaluating this feedback allows the team to identify gaps and react to resistance that may still be occurring. This phase also includes the top 10 steps for dealing with resistance which can be a powerful tool for managers and supervisors in the organization. 

Formally addressing resistance ensures that it is understood and dealt with throughout the lifecycle of the project. It moves managing resistance from simply a reactive mechanism to a proactive and ultimately more effective tool for mobilizing support and addressing objections.


4. Identify the root causes

Managing resistance is ineffective when it simply focuses on the symptoms. The symptoms of resistance are observable and often overt - such as complaining, not attending key meetings, not providing requested information or resources, or simply not adopting a change to process or behavior. While they are more evident, focusing on these symptoms will not yield results. To be effective at managing resistance, you must look deeper into what is ultimately causing the resistance. Effective resistance management requires identification of the root causes of resistance - understanding why someone is resistance, not simply how that resistance is manifesting itself.

Benchmarking data provides a nice starting point for understanding the root causes of resistance. Results from the 2009 benchmarking study showed some important themes in the top reasons for resistance (reaffirming the results from previous studies). When asked to identify the primary reasons employees and managers resisted change, study participants identified the following root causes:

  • Employees: the number one reason employees resisted change was a lack of awareness of why the change was being made. No one made a compelling case for why the change was being proposed, so employees were left wondering "why?" - which drove resistance.

  • Managers: the number one reason cited for manager resistance was a lack of awareness about and involvement in the change. Managers were not told why the change was happening and their input was not solicited, ultimately resulting in resistance to the change.

With the knowledge of these primary root causes from a benchmarking study with 575 participants, change management teams can adequately prepare a compelling case for the need for change that is communicated by senior leaders in the organization. This simple activity targets the top cause for resistance (lack of awareness) and can ultimately prevent much of the resistance a project experiences. You can use additional benchmarking findings and your own experience with change in your organization to craft a list of likely root causes with activities to address and mitigate each one.

The ADKAR® Model and an ADKAR assessment also enables you to hone in on the root cause of resistance, understand where an employee is stuck in the process by identifying their barrier point and address that root cause. ADKAR is a powerful diagnostic tool that can be quickly and easily applied by change management teams, managers and front-line supervisors in formal assessments or in casual conversations.

A final note on resistance to change - resistance is ultimately an individual phenomenon. While benchmarking and analysis can identify broadly the root causes for resistance, it is important to ultimately address resistance by individuals at the individual level. The best way to identify the root cause of resistance is through a personal conversation between a resistant employee and their supervisor, which leads us to the final tip for managing resistance.


5. Engage the "right" resistance managers

The "right" resistance managers in an organization are the senior leaders, middle managers and front-line supervisors. The change management team is not an effective resistance manager. Project team members, Human Resources or Organization Development staff are not effective resistance managers either. Ultimately, it takes action by leadership in an organization to manage resistance.

At a high level, senior leaders can help to mitigate resistance by making a compelling case for the need for change and by demonstrating their commitment to a change. Employees look to and listen to senior leaders when they are deciding if a change is important and they will judge what they hear and what they see from this group. If senior leaders are not committed to a change or waver in their support, employees will judge the change as unimportant and resist the change.

Managers and supervisors are the other key group in terms of managing resistance. They are the closest to front-line employees who ultimately adopt a change. If they are neutral to or resistant to a change, chances are that their employees will follow suit. However, if they are openly supportive of and advocating a particular change, these behaviors will also show up in how employees react to the change. Benchmarking data shows five key roles of managers and supervisors in times of change, and two of these roles are directly connected to managing resistance - role #2: demonstrate support for the change and role #5 - identify and manage resistance (read more about the five roles of managers and supervisors). Remember, though, you must address resistance from managers first before asking them to manage resistance.

The change management team or resource can do much of the leg work in understanding and addressing resistance, but the face of resistance management to the organization is ultimately senior leaders, managers and supervisors. The change management resource can help to enable the "right" resistance managers by providing data about where resistance is coming from, likely root causes of resistance, potential tactics for addressing resistance and tools to identify and manage resistance - but the "right" resistance managers must take action to address objections and move employees forward in the change process.




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References and books:

  • Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking report ($289 / quantity discounts available) - journal-style report with lessons learned and best practices from 650 participants, presented in an easy-to-use format - reads as a checklist of what to do and what not to do
  • Change Management: the people side of change ($18.95 / quantity discounts available) - a primer for anyone involved in organizational change that addresses why manage change, individual change management and organizational change management
  • ADKAR: a model for change ($18.95 / quantity discounts available) - the definitive work on Prosci's ADKAR® Model
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