What to Do When Workers Rebel Against Organizational Change and Development

What do you do when workers rebel against organizational change and development?

Resistance against change is a common barrier to change.

And it can kill change initiatives before they even start.

With the right plan, though, you can diffuse resistance … and even transform it into enthusiasm.

The first step is to understand the reasons for employee resistance.

Why People Resist Organizational Change and Development

One of the most commonly cited obstacles to change is employee resistance.

But why is it so common?

In many cases, it comes down to a lack of:

  • Confidence, either in themselves, their abilities, or the program
  • Skills or abilities
  • Time
  • Trust in the project, management, or leadership

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt can be the biggest enemies of any change program.

Correctly addressing and overcoming that fear is critically important – it can mean the difference between success and failure.

A 5-Step Plan for Diffusing Resistance

Let’s look at a straightforward approach for mitigating, reducing, and overcoming resistance.

1. Understand the Employee Perspective

The first objective is to understand the root cause of your workers’ resistance.

It will often be based on some of the reasons mentioned above.

But it’s important to analyze your own circumstances.

If you can identify one overarching cause of employee resistance, then that will give you a target to work on.

Understanding employee perspectives comes down to communication:

  • Start a dialogue with employees
  • Collect feedback through employee surveys, group discussions, and one-on-one conversations
  • Ask managers about their opinions and their workers’ opinions
  • Look at relevant analytics, such as software usage 

This information is necessary before moving on to the next step.

2. Create a Solution

When possible and feasible, your change initiative should be designed so that there is nothing to resist.

In other words, it should benefit employees.

If it doesn’t, find the silver lining and address the root cause that you identified in the first step:

  • If employees are afraid of automation, then ensure that they will have enough work to do
  • If employees lack time, then work with managers to help them find the time
  • If they lack skills, then provide them with those skills

For instance, if you are adopting new digital tools, then ensure that employees have the right training.

As mentioned, your solution should be pre-built into your change project from the outset.

Otherwise, employees will have good reason to resist – and selling your solution will be that much harder.

3. Sell the Solution

If your change program benefits employees in some way, then that makes your job easier.

And if that benefit counteracts their root fear, then so much the better – you will have a very easy time selling your change project.

Here are a few steps to “selling” your change initiative to resistant employees:

  • Learn their needs, wants, and desires. Do workers want career development opportunities? A better work environment? Better managers?
  • Pinpoint your change program’s benefits. Find where your change initiative overlaps with their desires. Or, if there isn’t any overlap, find the biggest benefits of your project.
  • Sell those benefits. Paint a picture of what success will look like. Then tell a story that puts your employees in that picture. Demonstrate how your change program will benefit them, and show how their fears are unfounded.

The right communication strategy can have dramatic results.

It can transform fear and uncertainty into motivation and engagement.

Effectively implementing this step can significantly streamline the rest of your change initiative.

4. Execute and Lead

Change leadership is vital to the success of any change project.

And it is essential to diffusing employee resistance.

Here are a few tips:

  • Run pilot programs. Pilot test your change project with smaller groups. These pilot groups can be “proofs of concept” that demonstrate the value of your change program. Employees can see the results for themselves, which will build confidence, allay fears, and improve engagement.
  • Embody change first. Leaders should lead from the top down and the bottom up. That is, they need to issue mandates and direct the change program. But they should also “walk the talk” and embody the change first. This will go a long way towards improving employee confidence.
  • Reward and recognize achievements. Short-term wins should be rewarded, or at least recognized. This can help employees stay motivated, which is particularly important for long change projects. Change fatigue, after all, can gradually build up into late-stage resistance.

Throughout the change program, keep tabs on the hearts and minds of employees.

5. Respond and React

It may sound basic, but it is important to listen and react to workers’ emotions.

If you see signs of resistance, fatigue, or burnout, respond quickly – those symptoms can have very negative impacts on your change initiatives.

Here’s how:

  • Track engagement. Listen to employees, keep collecting feedback, and track engagement metrics. 
  • Learn. Use that information to gain insight into employee psychology. That is, their behavior can tell you how they are feeling – and signal future behaviors.
  • Act. React and respond quickly when you see signs of resistance. 

Hopefully, the steps you’ve taken earlier will give you insight into how your workers think.

That information can help you preemptively tackle resistance before it becomes too great.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.