Change that Sticks: Overcoming Organizational Resistance to Change

by HPA Senior Advisor Alex Nesbitt

Losing weight is one thing, keeping it off is another. The same can be said for organizational change, a complex process that even the most seasoned leaders find challenging to roll out. And maintaining change? That’s another story. 

Without getting too philosophical, in nearly every aspect of existence, change is the norm; it’s constant. Change in the business universe – which involves anything that alters the way a business operates, its structure, processes, and culture – is no exception. This ongoing adaptation is vital: If organizations do not evolve to meet their surrounding circumstances, they risk losing forward momentum, instead, staying stuck in outdated, non-productive patterns. This kind of systemic change is vital to most organizations given shifting consumer behaviors, geo-political crises, technological innovations, and a litany of external forces. And yet, many change efforts fail to stick, leading to wasted resources, widespread frustration, loss of leadership, and a lack of progress towards an organization’s goals. 

Despite the importance of change, there are a number of driving factors for it not sticking:

  • Lack of leadership support is an obvious one. Leaders must be committed to the change and lead by modeling the behaviors and attitudes they expect from their employees. Without leadership encouragement, employees may view any change as unimportant or simply a temporary blip, leading to a lack of motivation and personal investment. 
  • Then there’s inadequate planning and resourcing. Organizational change that lasts requires both. Without a clear plan, change may be disjointed, confusing, and fail to land – or can even crash and burn. The planning process should involve identifying issues and opportunities, setting goals, defining the scope of the change, and developing a detailed implementation plan. Not putting proverbial money where the mouth is in order to resource (talent, technology, etc.) change can also be a major blocker to it sticking. 
  • Absence of effective communication, critical during any large change effort, is another biggie. Change requires leaders to communicate clearly and regularly with employees to keep them informed about the change, and its progress and impact. Good communication can create a sense of understanding and engagement, making employees more likely to embrace change. On the other hand, a lack of communication can lead to confusion and rumors, making the change more difficult to implement. 
  • Organizational change may also fail to stick due to a clash with an existing organizational culture, which could be an attempt to protect the shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that define the people that make up a company. If change is not aligned with an organization’s culture, employees may view it as an existential threat (sometimes it is).
  • Lastly, one of the main reasons why organizational change doesn’t stick is simple resistance or, in some cases, immunity to change. While change is often necessary to improve efficiency, increase productivity, and stay competitive, it’s not always easy to get employees to adopt new ways of doing things. This is often the case when people know that delegating would be beneficial but can’t seem to do it, even when they know they have competent people working for them. They’re afraid of what might happen based on unspoken and sometimes unconscious assumptions that may or may not be true. As an aside, this phenomenon writ large is often the root cause of persistent bureaucracy.

I’m going to double click on this last one – resistance or immunity to change – because to me, it’s the most interesting, understandable, and avoidable blockers to change sticking.

To make things work differently, you must change behavior.

While change is always individual, organizational change is hard because of individuals. Whether employees lack an understanding of a change effort, or they simply fear the unknown, for change to stick, they need to be onboard and have a firm grasp of the reasons behind it. Without buy-in, employees will resist change and it simply won’t last. It’s this thinking that keeps folks in an unhappy marriage: The fear of the separation and legal process and life after the marriage ends is scarier to some than the dysfunctional marriage itself. Fear often keeps us safe, protected, but also stagnant and unfulfilled.

The good news is, humans resisting change is not a bug, it’s a feature. Resistance exists for good reason. It’s a very human coping mechanism for staying safe. So as normal as change is, so is resistance to it, particularly since change can be uncomfortable, disruptive, and even unsettling for many. Humans are creatures of habit and change often does (and should) challenge established routines, beliefs, and processes. We’re individuals with different mindsets and opinions about how things should go. We have feelings about the world, and this universal truth is why employees may feel that they lack control over the change, leading to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Being uncomfortable when things get shaken up – even if that shake-up is necessary for an organization’s success – is completely understandable.

It’s not just fear of change that underpins resistance to it. Competing commitments – either hidden or unarticulated ones – that have higher priority than the changed behavior, which requires a level of attention to put into effect and can often feel like a full-time job. Most of us have more than one area of focus in life, and those can have challenging changes we need to cope with, too.

How to address resistance to make change stick 

So how do we resolve resistance or immunity to organizational change? Force is one way, and it works, but only for a while. Another path is first understanding what people really do before you worry about why they’re doing what they’re doing (or not doing what they should be doing). Go to the place where the work happens. Observe without judgement. Simply take stock of actual behavior.

Once you understand what they’re doing, focus on the assumptions and feedback loops without judging them. You’re attempting to understand what people assume will and will not happen because of their behavior. You’re also attempting to identify feedback that drives those assumptions. This process of deep seeing without judging will give you an understanding of the mechanics of what people are doing and how the mental and physical environment is promoting those behaviors.

Then, it’s essential for leaders to communicate effectively with employees, involve them in the process, and address their concerns. People aren’t being unreasonable or irrational about change, so they shouldn’t be treated like they are. This means dealing with the cause of the resistance head-on (is it real or imagined), acknowledging and legitimizing the feelings and fear.

After this, the path forks: Do you dissolve the resistance by removing whatever is causing it in the first place? Or do you solve for the resistance, adding something like increased force or additional compensation to counter it. The latter is a temporary fix, like a carrot on a stick, and doesn’t usually address the underlying issues.

At the end of the workday, staying changed requires dealing with the feelings and fears people have about change. The feeling of safety is an essential element of managing change. When we feel safe, we feel confident in our action. If we don’t feel safe through a change, it simply won’t stick. Logical, data-driven, rational thinking is great, but it’s all predicated on feelings. All the brain is doing is correlating feelings, which helps us make sense of the world, including our organization.

Whichever path leadership chooses to counter any resistance to change, it’s imperative to re-architect the mental and physical environment so that the experience of the new behavior is safe, easy, and desirable. This means organizations will need to be flexible and adaptable, and continuously monitor and evaluate the change process to ensure that it remains on track and relevant to evolving conditions. They should also provide training and support to help employees adjust to new processes and procedures. By involving employees in the change process and addressing their concerns, leaders can create a sense of ownership and buy-in, making the change more likely to stick.

ALEX NESBITT is an HPA Senior Advisor with 30+ years of management consulting experience and a strong track record of partnering with CEOs to tackle issues related to strategy, organizational and operational effectiveness, and performance improvement. Alex is a former BCG Managing Director who led the firm’s West Coast Industrial Practice. After leaving BCG, Alex founded a third-party logistics firm, which he later sold to Ryder Logistics.