Be alert to unstated resistance points to a change effort. Ideally people would tell you what concerns they have, but often they are unwilling to express them due to fear of embarrassment or anxiety over the unknown. For example, one office worker who resisted a change to a new office technology was initially perceived by her supervisor as being stubborn and ornery. But after probing, the supervisor realized that the employee was afraid that she couldn’t learn the new technology and was embarrassed to admit it.
Change initiators cannot assume that employees will be able to identify and articulate all of their concerns. Common unstated resistance points revolve around fear of the unknown, loss of status or financial insecurity. Wise planners take this into account which allows them to better help employees prepare for the change.
When communicating about a change, discuss the “upside” as well as the “downside”. There is a strong tendency when announcing a change to only discuss the positives. When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister during World War II, his optimism was always tempered with reality. He often communicated that he and others would have to offer their “blood, toil, tears and sweat” during this time.
Sharing concerns with employees and coworkers minimizes the “cheerleading” impact and presents a more realistic picture of the change. Research has revealed that it cultivates a climate of trust and builds confidence in the decision-making process. People are more willing to sustain the effort when inevitable obstacles surface. It also demonstrates that the change leaders have devoted time to thoroughly studying the issue.
When helping people through an organizational change, match your communication to their stage of reaction. People typically go through stages of denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance when faced with a major change. For example, in the denial stage, it is appropriate to discuss the rationale for the change and legitimize concerns. It is not appropriate to ridicule the person’s denial or ignore the resistance.
Identifying the stage of reaction and communicating appropriately legitimizes their “grief”. It helps them process the change and move through the stages more quickly.
When helping employees through an organizational change, make sure to provide for opportunities to “harvest the dissent”. Harvesting the dissent involves proactively soliciting worker concerns about the change in a supportive environment. For example, a simple technique might involve 1) asking employees to voice their concerns in a meeting, 2) recording their concerns in a non-evaluative manner on a flip chart, 3) lead a discussion on several critical issues, 4) transform the list and discussion into a Q & A document, and 5) distribute the Q & A to employees in a timely manner.
Harvesting the dissent acts as a type of “safety valve”. Wise leaders use this as an opportunity to start to deal with the concerns, recognizing that if they don’t harvest and manage the dissent, then someone else will. As a result, employees’ concerns are legitimized, de-personalized and de-emotionalized. A divisive climate does not magically disappear because leaders refuse to acknowledge it; “silence is not necessarily golden”.
Avoid under-communicating when sharing information about a non-routine and complex organizational change. Change initiators often share limited information because they may inaccurately assume that their audience has the necessary knowledge and they underestimate the impact the change will have. For example, computer programmers upgrading software may limit communication about the change because they view it as relatively minor. The user may view it as a more complex change, therefore requiring more information.
Communicating requires a receiver-orientation rather than a sender-orientation. Employees are more likely to “buy in” to change when they feel that adequate information has been provided.
Identify and utilize key opinion leaders when you’re building support for an initiative. Opinion leaders may not have a formal leadership position in the organization, but they are respected for their insight and expertise. They help group members make sense of organizational life, and they set the norms for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. If opinion leaders express resistance, managers need to address their concerns and determine how to gain their endorsement.
In many respects, the “buy-in” of the opinion leaders is the most important determinant of whether programs succeed or fail. Once they are convinced, they will in turn, influence others. The opinion leaders are clearly influential yet are often overlooked by change initiators.