The major problem with getting organizational change to take place in a business is nearly always the same one: some form of human opposition. People resist change for a number of different reasons. For one thing, the status quo is often just too comfortable. Employees ask, “Why should I get out of my comfort zone and try something new?” It’s a secure feeling to know exactly what you’re going to do each day. There are many reasons employees tend to resist change, but most of them have to do with fear. When they are fearful, people will likely resist in some manner.
Given the potential strength of the resistance, what steps can be taken to overcome reluctant employees? One approach is to “tell it like it is.” You can communicate to the workers the entire situation with all of its implications. Usually in a situation that calls for change, the alternative—remaining the same—will produce negative consequences. Employees should know specifically what those consequences will be, and how each of their positions will be affected. Resistance to change is often exacerbated by poor communication, resulting in a hazy understanding of the purpose and consequences of the change.
Create a climate where change is acceptable. The manager’s responsibility is to create a work environment that allows workers to be comfortable with change. If you maintain a rigid, inflexible attitude towards new ideas, you are creating a climate that discourages change-oriented thinking. This approach includes educating the employees and communicating with them on an ongoing basis. A manager who communicates with employees only when a change is coming misses the power that regular communication brings. Also, employee should use assertiveness skills to ask questions of you about impending change.
Involve Everyone in the Change Effort. People who have been involved with the creation of a change find it very difficult to resist that change. Even when workers don’t have the expertise to make technical decisions connected to a change effort, they usually can be involved somewhere in the process. Sometimes external forces, such as government regulations or technological advancement, mandate a change and you are put in the position wherein you cannot allow employees to help decide whether or not the change is to happen. Even in a situation that rigid, employees can usually can be given some meaningful participative freedom. You might ask the group, “What can we do to make this change go as smoothly as possible?” Some participation is better than none at all. One note of caution: employees should know how their input is going to be handled. If their advice will be considered but they will not actually have a vote, this limitation should be clearly stated at the outset. Failure to make that point clear can result in low morale.
The Japanese Approach. We can still learn some change management lessons from the Japanese. They seem to be remarkably adaptive to change. Workers are nearly always involved in change decisions, and managers usually communicate change well. Here are some procedures they follow:
1. Japanese managers are not hesitant to get the workers directly involved with the change process from the very beginning. From question-and-answer sessions, Japanese managers discover the fears and misgivings of the worker concerning the change, and they receive suggested solutions, many of which are really used.
2. Before a change takes place, Japanese managers spend hours studying the problem, examining each possible solution and analyzing the possible results from any action they might take.
3. Japanese companies have fewer layers of management, which reduces red tape and the traps of bureaucracy; it also encourages communication to take place in all areas of the firm.
4. If a problem comes up in the change process, Japanese companies don’t blame the workers. Instead, they blame the process, the system or the management.
Whatever approach you take, be sure that the change is necessary and important. If it is both, you can proceed with confidence into the daunting process of change.
Lowell Lamberton is Emeritus Professor of Business at Central Oregon Community College. You can access him at firstname.lastname@example.org.