How Leaders Can Take Charge of Change

By Jennifer J. Salopek

It's easy to just say people "resist change." The reality is that you can create an environment where a change initiative won't encounter harsh skepticism.

TechnologyOur firm may be introducing Web-based training, a knowledge-management system. Whatever the flavor of the month, new technology can create real resistance in your workforce -- and, in some cases, anxiety and fear.

David Dell, research director for capabilities management and HR at The Conference Board, has observed, "Both HR and IT have many new issues to address and many decisions to make and implement. But the speed of change in both areas makes the challenge more difficult as it increases the promise."


Why do people resist change? Leslie Smith, a clinical psychologist and former Web designer in McLean, Virginia, outlines these reasons:

  • Fear of making mistakes or looking foolish.
  • A lack of understanding or confidence about the new system and its benefits.
  • Anxiety about doing more. Employees often feel overworked already, and resist learning something new when it's layered on top of their existing duties.
  • Change fatigue. Once people learn something new, they'd like to stick with that new knowledge and take a rest.

Jeanie Daniel Duck, author of The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation & Change, writes, "The knee-jerk answer (to failed change efforts) is the people 'resist change,' as if 'resistance to change' were some kind of sorry genetic code that, if it could be reengineered, would magically produce people instantly eager to do things differently whenever anyone asked. The 'resistance to change' answer… is appealing because it takes the blame off the leaders and puts it on those 'no-good followers.'"

Leaders must take charge of change. There are many things that you can do to ensure a more successful initiative, including:

Communicate. Explain what benefits you expect from the new system and how people's roles might change. Also make sure that change is championed from the top of the organization and communicate that support.

Collaborate. Involve prospective users in change decisions and choices. Duck says it's not the change that's the problem, but the way it comes down. "People are changing all the time, but those are changes of their own choosing," Duck says. "People resist being told they have to change."

Demonstrate. As Duck observes, people are powerfully motivated by self-interest. Technological change is likely to be more successful if people are shown what's in it for them. "When they're motivated, it's amazing what people can do," she says.

Evaluate. Look at the whole corporate culture, not just IT, to determine how many other changes people are being asked to deal with at the same time, such as a merger or reorganization. Perhaps it's time to give them a breather.

Commiserate. Let people know it's okay to complain, Duck advises. It provides a useful outlet. Although IT may feel like the corporate whipping boy, "that's the nature of the beast. IT departments have a checkered past," she says. "They must accept that and be more careful." Further, allowing complaint and disagreement might enable you to measure resistance before you spend millions of dollars on that new initiative.

Don't denigrate. Mary Lynn Pulley, Ph.D., is a faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina. She maintains that the learning curve is upside down: "It's more of a valley than a hill," she says. "Whenever you learn anything, your performance actually declines before it improves."

She refers to that performance dip as the Valley of Chaos, and urges learners to remember that chaos and creation go hand in hand. "Things have to fall apart or disintegrate in some way so that they can come back together in a new way." Managers must make it clear that mistakes are okay and avoid any kind of punishment for error in a learning environment.

Eradicate. "You must allow for the notion of un-learning as people abandon old ways," Pulley says. Know that people have to rid their minds and routines of that which no longer works, but be aware that getting rid of the old and familiar can engender fear and confusion.

Jennifer J. Salopek is a writer based in McClean, Virginia.

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