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The Psychology Behind Employee Resistance to Change and What to Do About It

Updated: Nov 2, 2023



Case Example: Implementing Change and Generating Employee Resistance


In 2018, a healthcare organisation in England found itself at the forefront of a significant merger and acquisition. The stakes were high, with the looming possibility of redundancies creating a cloud of uncertainty among employees. What ensued was a masterclass in miscommunication and the severe repercussions it can have on an organisation and its workforce.


Assurances and Behind-the-Scenes Realities:


As the merger and acquisition plans unfolded, senior leaders were quick to address the employee concerns. Assurances were made that there would be no redundancies, and a commitment to maintaining "business as usual" was emphasised. However, behind the scenes, a starkly different narrative was unfolding—one marked by substantial downsizing that would ultimately lead to a staggering 20% reduction in the workforce.


The Unraveling Trust:


Three months later, the organisation's leadership dropped a bombshell—employees were now required to interview for their existing positions. The very positions they were told were secure just months earlier. Understandably, shockwaves of upset and anger reverberated through the workforce. The broken promises and lack of transparency eroded the trust that employees had in the organisation.


Impact on Employee Morale:


This abrupt shift in communication left employees not only grappling with the fear of potential unemployment but also nursing a deep sense of betrayal. The fallout manifested as a toxic cocktail of emotions—upset, anger, and a pervasive atmosphere of distrust. Morale plummeted, and the once cohesive and dedicated workforce found themselves at odds with the very organisation they had committed their time and energy to.


Employee Resistance to Change:


Organisational change is a constant in the dynamic business world, driven by factors such as crises, underperformance, external pressures, mergers & acquisitions, or new opportunities. In 2018, Forbes highlighted a sobering statistic: an estimated 70 percent of change efforts fail, largely due to employee resistance. This underscores the critical need for organisations to develop effective strategies to understand and manage resistance to ensure successful implementation. This blog will explore the psychology behind employee resistance to change and offer insights on empowering employees to adapt to transformative shifts.



Employee Resistance to Change:


Employee resistance to change encompasses disengagement, employee disgruntlement, refusal to change, increased absenteeism, and hostility towards colleagues or the organisation. Change in the workplace often triggers uncertainty, confusion, and fear, leading to a destabilising process often perceived as a threat by employees. Two key processes govern these responses:


· The Fight/Flight/Freeze Response

· Homeostasis


The Fight/Flight/Freeze Response:


The innate 'fight/flight/freeze response' activates when individuals feel threatened. In the workplace, this manifests as increased conflict, pushback against new tasks, disinterest, delays in completing tasks, and increased time off. Senior leaders must recognise these behaviours as signals of employee unease and address the perceived threat by reframing change as an opportunity for growth.


Homeostasis:


Externally induced change disrupts the stability employees find in their work. Homeostasis, a self-regulating process, compels individuals and organisational systems to return to familiar 'old' ways of working, which may be seen as resistance. Acknowledging this tendency helps leaders collaborate with employees, fostering acceptance of and adaptation to change.


Managing the Message:


The Fight/Flight/Freeze response and homeostatic tendencies contribute to communication breakdown during periods of change. Because organisational drivers for change usually differ from homeostatic drivers for stability, creating a need for a coherent narrative to underpin the process of organisational change is essential. As discussed in the case example, an absence of such communication will lead to workplace instability, disrupting progress toward goals.


Transparent and Honest Communication:


Employee resistance to change signals a lack of trust and security in the workplace. Senior leaders must establish open, honest, and transparent two-way communication with employees undergoing change. When delivered sensitively, real and honest messages about changes being made, even if challenging, build trust in the organisation. Inviting feedback from employees about their experiences of change reinforces trust, especially when it informs change implementation.


Stages of Employee Engagement:


Senior leaders can achieve this through 2 stages of employee engagement:


· Reflective 1-to-1 Sessions

· Group Debriefing Sessions


Reflective 1-to-1 Sessions:


During periods of instability, addressing the perceived threat triggering the Fight/Flight/Freeze response is crucial. Creating a safe space for one-on-one dialogue between employees and team leaders fosters inclusivity, collaboration, and responsiveness. Reflective sessions should acknowledge past experiences of change, validate concerns, appreciate employee positions, and offer stress management solutions.


Group Debriefing Sessions:


Group debriefing sessions provide a supportive and validating space for employees to share experiences of change. Facilitators should encourage productive discussions on change and its management. Empowering employees to contribute to the change process fosters a sense of involvement. Senior leaders should gather feedback from these sessions to inform adaptive responses and communicate this to employees.


Conclusion:


Navigating employee resistance to change requires a comprehensive strategy rooted in transparent communication, understanding behavioural responses, and actively engaging employees at all levels. Resistance to change indicates employees are experiencing destabilisation in the workplace and should be seen as a communication of a threat rather than an indication of obstinance by employees. By recognising change as a natural process leading to growth, organisations can establish trust, worth, and collaboration as central to successful change management.

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