Managing Resistance to Improvement

February 26, 2015 by ahmed

Originally posted on LinkedIn by John Schultz

Why Improvements Can Produce Anxiety

Systems and processes exist in their current state because someone got them to that level of refinement. Flawed and inconsistent as these practices may now appear, at some point in the past, an effort—possibly heroic—was made to coordinate activities and relationships to create a sense of order.

Then over time those involved learned to compensate for gaps and made the system operational. In turn, these employees built a mental model about who they were and what they could do based on this arrangement for getting work done. Proposed improvements often threaten these mental pictures and create self-doubt because the new way of operating will require skills and social structures that are not familiar. The thought of uncertainty then produce anxious feelings about loss of identity, loss of position, and loss of face that give rise to guarded behavior.

These fears may take many forms from negative attitudes to active sabotage, and may become evident through reduced productivity, decreased quality, increased absenteeism, and produce increased grievances. The following are typical sources for anxiety:

  • Comfort with current operations: The old way for getting work done has been in place for some period of time, and seems to be working fine. Process operators and stakeholders don’t see a need to “reinvent the wheel.”
  • Doubt about the need and vision for improvement: There is uncertainty about the reason behind proposed improvements and how existing work structures and relationships will be impacted. The question—“what’s in it for me?”—has not been adequately answered.
  • Concern over loss: There is a perceived fear over how improvements will affect acquired skills, salary, status, quality of work, or other benefits attributed to the existing process.
  • Organization’s past history: Past proposals for improvement have been poorly handled—muddled implementation, lack of resources, inadequate training, or the eventual abandonment of activities—only to have remedies replaced by another “program of the month.”
  • The proposed improvement is flawed: There is a realization that the new way for operating has real problems that will ultimately create difficulty in the current or adjacent processes.

Helping People Deal with Concerns over Improvement

People confronted by altered circumstances frequently experience grief and will go through a distinct conversion process before taking on their new roles. The length of time at each stage varies depending on the situation, the type of support provided, and individual adaptability. Each step has its own set of recognizable characteristics. Accepting and understanding these stages will provide an opportunity for the project team—as agents of improvement—to reduce resistance and move system improvements forward.

The following is an adaptation of Lynn Fossum’s thinking on behavior patterns people will go through upon encountering situation-altering events. This process is based on studies done by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who primarily worked with people confronted by mortality. However, she also observed that similar behaviors occurred for people wrestling with other types of loss.

  • Indifference: A belief that a proposed change will make little difference and nothing new is really going to take place. Or when it does, individual interests will be taken care of. As a result, work continues as usual.
  • Opposition: There is a realization that the old way of doing things will not work, and new rules apply. There is an active pushback to maintain old and familiar routines.
  • Consideration: A recognition that changes are starting to affect people’s work. Adaptations are required to reduce confusion. By modifying and tailoring work processes, some things begin to function better.
  • Cooperation: The new process begins to exhibit some successes. Workgroups can see results. The skeptics and cynics are proven wrong and leave or buy in.

Although the urge to push new ideas upon a process without reflection can be tempting, doing so often works to undercut the improvement effort. Modifications that plan for and manage human relations concerns with the same attention as practical matters have a much better chance of being accepted. People experiencing change are less likely to feel intimidated when they can understand and anticipate how alterations may impact their work and ability to contribute. A pragmatic approach is generally viewed as less daunting and more acceptable. To be successful, improvement activities should include practices that reduce resistance and anchor the proposed improvement so others are not confronted with the same problem at some point later on.

The resulting dilemma, therefore, when making improvements is not the technical aspects of change, but dealing with the human behavioral issues that are inevitably encountered. By not taking the time to consider stakeholder needs and circumstances, a well-crafted solution can fail to gain traction while process operators and supervisors come to grips with new and unfamiliar concepts. People who work in and manage the process then become grousing skeptics, procrastinators, and even active resistors. Due to frustration, improvements are half-heartedly accepted without creating a sense of ownership and a lasting impact.

Groups affected by change need to be part of the decision-making and allowed to work their way through developments. The inclusion of workgroups can consume valuable time and create frustration for change agents; nevertheless, people will almost certainly not modify attitudes and behaviors because they were told, pushed or warned. Being an agent for change has contingencies, and one of them is followers. In most organizational and social-political settings people have options. They can quit, go on strike, reduce their output, protest and sabotage directives, or engage in a campaign to overthrow the status quo and gain control. Ultimately, change needs to be more than a spectator pursuit.

Techniques for Dealing with Resistance to Improvements

Fear and anxiety are a natural response to change, but they can be dealt with. However, this requires an atmosphere of openness where people can speak their mind and be listened to. The key to coping with resistance is to understand those affected by reforms and then actively take steps to address their issues.

When there is abnormal resistance to a proposed improvement, it should be a signal that something may have been missed. Mistakes may have been made, concerns may not have been satisfactorily handled, or the proposal may not have been adequately presented and thus may have been misunderstood. The choice of responses and techniques that might be applied are multiple and somewhat dependent on the personal perspective of the individuals involved and the challenges encountered.

The following strategies adapted from John Kotter and Leonard Schlesinger (1979) are methods for dealing with resistance to change. Any or all may be used depending on the situation. Each technique has situational uses and produces consequences that can have both favorable and unfavorable outcomes:

  • Two-way communication: Used when there is the assumption that information is lacking, inaccurate or being poorly analyzed. Involves listening to employee concerns and providing precise information.
  • Group participation and decision making: Ensures that those affected by the change have input into the design and realization activities. Employee groups take an active role in the implementation process.
  • Education and training: Special attention is paid to people’s needs and concerns through team building, confidence building and training to ensure skills are sufficient for alterations in responsibility.
  • Negotiation and bargaining: Through a process of open discussion, modifications are made to proposed changes. The rate of implementation and issues dealing with employee welfare are usually negotiated.
  • Economic incentives: Some form of compensation is provided to reduce losses that result from the change. Guarantees against the loss of wages and commissions also may be used in this case.

Unfortunately, the pressure to get something done and move on often leads to transformational approaches that do not produce buy-in, but instead promote compliance in a situation in which continuing relations between levels of authority can become adversarial. Although expedient, such actions can destroy trust, undermine future relationships, create a strong feeling of loss and set the stage for whistle blowing and sabotage.

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