Corporate Strategy

Why employees resist change – even when it’s good for them

workplace training

Updated on: 8/6/2023

When you tell a child to do something, they often ask you why. And if you’re a parent, it’s tempting to answer “because I told you to”. After all, you’re acting in the child’s best interests. Do you really have the time to talk them through the benefits?

But here’s the thing – and you’ll know this yourself. Eventually, children get sick of following blindly. Why shouldn’t they touch the fire? Why can’t they have another ice cream? If a child doesn’t understand why they should or shouldn’t do something, then they either kick up a fuss or simply rebel and do the opposite.

Telling your employees that something is about to change, is a lot like telling a child to do something. No, I’m not saying that you have a childish workforce. But if you approach organisational change as if you were an impatient parent, then don’t be surprised if your employees throw themselves onto the proverbial floor, screaming and kicking their legs.

I’ve long been fascinated by the reasons why people resist change, even when it’s for the best. Why do old people refuse to use smartphones? Why do children find it so difficult to move to a better school? Why do employees kick against new software or systems?

In order to answer some of these questions, I spoke to more than 30 business owners, HR experts and change management consultants. And during each conversation, I stumbled on 10 common recurring themes.

Here are the 10 biggest reasons why employees resist change:

1. You’re not communicating clearly

According to business psychologist Nick Davis, director of Davis Associates, it boils down to communication. “The purpose and nature of the change need to be clear, and openly discussed” he explains. “Without this dialogue, there will likely be an element of perceived unfairness, as well as a degree of anxiety due to uncertainty or ambiguity.”

If you remember my recent interview with Simon Kilpatrick, then you’ll remember that a failure to communicate is a classic symptom of poor change management. And there are lots of reasons why management often fails to communicate. For example:

 * They don’t feel the changes are important enough to mention

 * They’re worried about the impact of the changes

 * They simply forget that employees also need to know

But if you’re leaving employees guessing, you’re basically giving them permission to imagine a worst-case scenario. This can lead to a change being blown out of proportion, resulting in resistance or even churn.

2. Fear of the unknown

Even if you’ve communicated what is happening, employees may still be left wondering how these changes might affect them. And according to Ron Hamilton, of Practical HR Solutions, this ‘fear of the unknown’ is the same, regardless of how big planned changes might be.

“I have clients who have changed their whole business strategy, and others who have changed a simple software system,” he says, “and the fear is the same. The companies that break down the resistance best are those that can convince the employees that things will be better with the changes.”

So beyond simply communicating what is happening, it’s important to explain exactly how this benefits each person. Because if you don’t help employees see the potential benefits, they might only consider the worst-case scenarios.

3. There is no transitional support

Remember the analogy I opened with, where I compared the organisational change to dealing with a child? According to certified performance coach Heather L. Cole, this analogy goes even further.

“Think of it like starting a new school as a kid” she explains. “When your parents tell you that you are moving you are in shock. But then they tell you all the pluses of the new school – like how you can try out for the sports team… then they help you transition by introducing you to kids at the school, and walking you in on your first day.”

Cole says that if managers would only learn from ‘mum’s example’, then employees would be far less resistant to change. New colleagues? Organise a team social. New responsibilities? Pitch in and get your hands dirty too. But if you just announce “hey, this is new – good luck”, and then throw employees in at the deep end? Don’t be surprised if they struggle to tread water.

4. Employees are grieving their loss

When something new comes in, something old gets pushed out. And with loss, comes grieving. So in order to support a smooth transition, leaders need to recognise that employees may be experiencing grief.

“Employees start to grieve the loss of how it’s been” explains Cole, “which is why I coach managers to acknowledge the old ways, and how amazing their people were at getting so much done.”

Acknowledging how well people were doing their jobs can really help them feel happier about the changing times to come. As well as making them feel more valued, it reminds them that you’re not introducing new systems or processes because of anything they’re doing wrong.

Many people believe there are seven stages of grief – shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance. | Image by sirtravelalot / Shutterstock, Inc

5. Employees feel challenged

When employees feel challenged, they’re likely to hit back. And according to Scott Crabtree, who teaches the science of happiness to clients like DreamWorks, Intel, Boeing and Nike, organisational change can make employees feel seriously challenged.

“Employees resist change because their brains are wired to survive in groups in the wilderness” he explains. “According to the SCARF model, our brains have five specific needs – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. And when things change, these needs are challenged.”

Crabtree explains that during organisational change, employees will have questions like:

 * Will my job be the same, and will people respect me as much? (status)

 * Will I know what will happen during and after this change? (certainty)

 * Will I have as much say in what I do and how? (autonomy)

 * Will I still have the same relationship with the same colleagues in the same ways? (relatedness)

 * Has my employer decided how each part of this change will be implemented? (fairness)

The SCARF model originated with Dr David Rock, who first published the idea in a book called Your Brain At Work.

6. People get replaced as the experts

So what if the change directly impacts the work somebody is doing? For example, if you are replacing a system where, previously, you had one or two ‘go-to experts’ at using it?

“Some employees enjoy being the subject matter expert when someone has a question or concern” explains Nancy Anderson, of Blackbird Learning Associates. “They want to feel needed and indispensable to the department or organisation. If they are the expert with a particular system, they feel pushed out when a new system is introduced and the old one is scrapped – it puts everyone on the same level, and they become less vital members of the team for a while.”

Introducing new systems can make employees feel like their expertise is being replaced. Encourage them to learn the new systems, and reclaim their roles as experts. | Image by Waldemarus / Shutterstock, Inc

The key here is convincing these experts that you are not replacing their expertise. Rather, you are equipping them with new tools that will make them even more efficient than ever before. Encourage people to launch themselves into learning new processes or systems, so that they can reclaim their roles as experts.

7. Resistance is the path of least resistance

Of course, not everybody wants to learn new systems, build their skills, or adapt to a new way of working. Why? Because it takes too much damn energy!

“They want business as usual,” says Susy Roberts, founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts. “This is because when people are under pressure, business as usual is the path of least resistance.”

Roberts says that learning to do things a different way and refocusing priorities ramps up the pressure on people who may already be carrying a heavy load. She says that it takes time and reassurance for people to truly believe that a new way of doing things can be more productive, and even make their job easier, in the long run. But don’t expect them to enthusiastically adopt every learning curve ball you throw their way – to begin with, their resistance may simply feel, to them, like the path of least resistance.

8. It simply isn’t what they signed up for

Resistance to change is often more profound in organisations where employees expect predictability. According to Rachel Carrell, CEO of childcare tech start-up Koru Kids, change is normally smoother in a start-up, because employees expect things to change often. But in more established organisations, employees often sign up for predictability and reliability – and change simply isn’t what they expect or want.

“When I worked for a small start-up, employees had plenty of alternative options if that job didn’t work out” Carrell explains. “But when I moved into the NHS, for most people, any change was quite threatening. I saw people completely freeze at the prospect of redundancy, for example. It’s very scary if you don’t have much saved up, and other job opportunities are not plentiful.”

This underlines the importance of communicating what a change will entail. Even if redundancy isn’t on the cards, you don’t know how employees will interpret proposed changes – especially if they signed up for a reliable, predictable role.

9. Employees weren’t consulted or involved

The best way to help employees understand why a change is happening is to have them involved in the change decisions in the first place. This also serves to remind them that they are a valuable part of the team and to reduce any fear of the unknown. So before making changes, consult the people who it will affect – your people.

“Change is not something that should be forced onto employees by management,” says Elizabeth Becker, client partner at PROTECH. “Instead, employees should be involved in the planning and implementation of change. This allows management to enact changes in a way that improves the working environment while improving organisational efficiency.”

According to research by The Creative Group, not enough organisations do this effectively. Only 45% of professionals said changes were considered carefully, while 53% felt staff members weren’t sufficiently involved in implementing them.

10. You’re making changes that unfairly affect your employees

Not all changes are for the best. At least not for all employees.

I didn’t particularly want to talk about this, because I like to live in a fantasy world where employers actually care about the people who build their success. But after speaking to Diane McCann, of Park Capital Management, I decided that it’s too important not to address.

According to McCann, who has been through four major organisational changes, one of the top 10 reasons why employees resist change during a buyout, is because it often only benefits upper management.

“Prior to the announced merger at the last bank I worked for, stock prices dropped dramatically as the company took major loan losses and wrote off business assets,” McCann told me. “But while employees waited to hear their own fates, announcements were being made about upper management being given large buyout payments. This, after these same people in management, acted in a manner not conducive to building a profitable organisation.”

Look, if this is how you’re conducting your business, then I’m not surprised that employees are resisting change. After all, while upper management is boasting about bonuses, the people who got you to where you are, are losing their jobs.

And if you work in HR? Then maybe you need to consult which side you’re really working for, and use your position to encourage upper management to treat everybody in the organisation fairly.

10 ways to overcome resistance to change

Hopefully, this article has helped you to explore some of the big issues employees face when things change. By tackling these root causes, organisational change should become a smoother, more pain-free process.

Rich Newsome
By Rich Newsome Digital Content Writer

Rich is a content writer at Access PeopleHR and has a wealth of experience within the tech space, including HR software. Passionate about providing website visitors with informative and easy-to-understand content, Rich is committed to helping SMBs find the best solutions for their needs. With a flair for writing, Rich's content engages and educates readers, guiding them towards informed decisions.