Anytime an organization embarks on a change initiative, managers can expect conflict to arise. Change is stressful, even when it is for the better. Transitions from the old ways of doing things to the new are difficult because bugs and details need to be worked out. There is frequently quite a bit of uncertainty. Sometimes, what is good for the organization is not as good for all individuals. Even when individuals will not be negatively affected, they are likely to show resistance to the change for some period of time. It is this resistance that leads to conflicts related to organizational change.
Managing transitions and the conflicts that erupt during them is an important management function. It can make the difference between a relatively smooth transition and one that slows down or risks sabotaging the change effort. Worse, some of the conflicts brought on by the change initiative, if unaddressed, can haunt relationships and organizational life long after the change itself is well integrated.
What are some general principles about people and change?
- People will resist change (often for legitimate reasons).
- People go through stages before adopting a change.
- Knowledge alone has little or no effect upon behavior.
- Attitudes favoring the change do not always result in the change.
- People often do not do what is in their economic or self interest.
- Cultural norms, emotions, and social interactions will influence the change.
Where does resistance to change come from?
Resistance will surface when there is certainty that negative consequences will occur. People will resist even if they are simply unsure about positive consequences occurring or when there are a lot unknowns.
Specific resistant actions may be overt and/or covert. Either open or hidden actions may involve conflict. The conflict may be with the change itself. This type of conflict manifests as disagreement about the change(s) with the managers that are closest to the individuals. This is so even if those managers are not the decision makers for the organizational change. They are the proxies of those who did decide since their role is to represent the organization and implement the change. Employees may also end up in conflict with each other: perceived winners (of the change) versus perceived losers; those who are for versus those against the change; random conflicts about seemingly unrelated issues brought on by the stress of the change.
Why do people resist change?
Loss of Control: Change is exciting when it is done by us, threatening when it is done to us.
Excess Uncertainty: If we don’t know where the next step will lead, we tend to stay put.
Surprise, Surprise: We resist that for which we have had no time to prepare.
The Howard Johnson Effect: Our desire for familiar surroundings is strong. We don’t like to change our routines and habits.
Loss of Face: It’s hard to admit that the way things were done in the past was “wrong” or at least not the “best” way.
Can I Do It? We become concerned about our competence. Will I make it under the new circumstances? Do I have the skills to compete in the new situation?
Ripple Effect: Changes at work often disrupt personal affairs.
More Work: The effort to manage things under routine circumstances is multiplied when things are changing.
- Past Resentments: Unresolved issues from the past rise up to entangle and hamper the change effort.
- Sometimes the Threat is Real: Sometimes change creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots.
What can managers do to manage resistance to change?
While the strategies below might not avert all conflicts related to the change, they will facilitate movement through the transition period. Most of the strategies have to do with identifying and addressing specific resistance to change and maintaining forward momentum toward the organizational change goals.
- Use trusted people, methods to communicate message(s) that address resistance at the right time(s) and places.
- Provide appropriate and timely incentives and disincentives.
- Provide regular, audience-appropriate feedback and celebrate milestones toward the goal; evaluate progress and make adjustments as needed.
- Align organizational structures as needed to support the change. (e.g. reward & accountability systems; organizational processes, communications and coordination between groups/decision levels, etc.)
- Manage inevitable conflicts and polarities; find common ground among multiple goals; help people manage their stress
By the way, sometimes first line or lower level managers have not been privy to the decisions that brought about the change. They might not have all the information that would help their unit forge through the transition. They too might have been negatively impacted by it. They may feel as vulnerable and resistant as other employees. Yet they are still expected to help implement and manage the transition. If you are an employee in the midst of an organizational change effort, try to remember that your direct manager deserves compassion and understanding too.
What are some good and bad experiences you have had with organizational change?