HR Insights
October 20, 2023

Employees resisting change? Here's what you can do

Resistance to change and low adoption rates can be roadblocks in your digital transformation efforts. Once your managers understand the most common barriers, these obstacles can become opportunities to successfully navigate change and adapt together.

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Organizations are motivated to change to remain competitive in their space, but goals set by leaders aren’t always enough to drive action. Deloitte found that 82% of transformation efforts fail due to employee resistance. In the ever-evolving world of work, the ability to adapt and embrace transformation is no longer a choice but a necessity.

Resistance to change can be seen among both teams and their managers. It’s a phenomenon deeply rooted in human psychology, and these days it’s posing significant challenges for organizations striving to evolve and adapt.

What is resistance to change? Oxford Reference says employees may be hesitant to organizational change due to:

  • A misunderstanding of the goal of the change
  • A low tolerance or fear of change
  • Belief that value will be lost

Let’s go over some of the most common reasons behind some staff resistance to change and actionable strategies to help you move the needle.

Root causes of change resistance

Many factors may be contributing to change resistance in your organization. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Performance anxiety: When more efficient technologies are introduced, it may mean adjusting to different processes, which can feel like more work in the beginning. This can be overwhelming and stressful, especially for those who resist change. Employees who are doing well with their current system may not want to let go of their progress, skills, or experience to transition to different tools.
  • Social disconnection: Introducing new technologies often replaces physical communication pathways with digital ones. This shift can disrupt established social dynamics within the team, leading to discomfort and resistance.
  • Adoption hurdles: Learning new business software and hardware takes time, with gradual improvement expected. If an employee struggles, however, and falls consistently behind, frustration can deter its use. Make sure you have training programs in place, and that you don’t overlook your older workers who may need upskilling.
  • “If it ain’t broke” mindset: Some people prefer to keep things as they are when they don’t see a compelling reason to shift to new technology.
  • Tech preferences: When employees favor certain technologies, adopting new software can cause resistance. For example, when a company accepts a new vendor proposal, those who were rooting for one of the other options may be less open to the software.

Other signs of staff resistance to change

Beyond current return-to-office opposition, today, staff resistance to change is manifesting in a myriad of ways. Absenteeism, low productivity, and the phenomenon of “quiet quitting” are telling indicators of employees unwilling to embrace transformation.

A September 2022 Gallup survey found that quiet quitters make up about half of the U.S. workforce. While they might not openly resist change, their overall disengagement can certainly create resistance to certain workplace conditions, new initiatives, or changes of any significant kind.

Effectively handling staff resistance to change is a challenge. There’s a delicate balance needed between addressing employee concerns and caving in to demands. For example, after working from home during the pandemic, some organizations that enforced the return to work were met with disengagement, fear, and distrust. According to a Gallup survey, these employees can exhibit lower engagement and well-being, along with higher intentions to leave and increased levels of burnout.

The answer may lie in accommodating different work styles and attitudes to change.

The Diffusion of Innovation Theory: A framework for moving forward

The Diffusion of Innovation Theory, developed by American sociologist E.M. Rogers, breaks populations down into five categories based on their readiness to accept new ideas and subsequently describes how these groups accept innovation. This theory can be used to analyze entire populations or smaller social systems, like a single team in an organization. Here’s an overview of Rogers’ adopter categories:

  1. Innovators: Those who eagerly embrace and even develop new ideas themselves.
  2. Early adopters: Opinion leaders who are quick to adapt when change is introduced.
  3. Early majority: Individuals who adopt new ideas before the average person, but require proof of concept.
  4. Late majority: Skeptical individuals who only change when most others have already adopted the idea.
  5. Laggards: Tradition-bound individuals who are resistant to change and often need substantial persuasion.

If you are encountering staff resistance to change, it's possible that you have a significant number of category four and five adopters within your organization.

Five tips for managing resistance to change

So, how should leaders successfully handle staff resistance to change? How can you light a fire under laggards? Here are five effective tactics for managing resistance to change.

1.Plan: Craft a change management strategy

Develop a plan that directly tackles employees' concerns and potential roadblocks to change. For example, a well-rounded plan for the first 100 days of an HCM implementation can help leaders manage change with a clear path ahead.

2.Inspire: Harness early adopters to motivate others

Engage with early adopters from other teams who are excited and using the new technology. Remember, latecomers to change will likely need compelling examples and encouragement from their peers. Early adopters can play a pivotal role in fueling the energy required to allow innovation and a culture of change to take root within an organization.

3.Unite: Inform staff early and communicate clearly

Communicate your change plans early on across the organization to prevent sudden surprises. Share updates promptly, even if decisions come from above. For example, when considering an HR system change, keep employees informed about the vendor choice and training schedules. Also, be sure to align change with your mission to foster a shared vision of the future.

4.Personalize: Address "what's in it for me"

Clearly articulate how employees' work lives will tangibly improve by using the new tool. They need to understand the benefits personally and connect the dots on the advantages change will bring not just to the organization but to them. Communicating the “why” clearly is essential no matter what new innovations you’re introducing.

5.Discuss: Have a meaningful dialogue

To enhance morale, performance, and readiness for change, it's crucial for managers to initiate open, two-way communication with employees who are resistant to change. Reach out and engage in meaningful dialogues to hear out their concerns. This valuable insight can guide you in customizing your approach to meet their specific needs.

Managing resistance to change: A top priority

Building resilience into the boundless workforce is essential. By understanding the motivations for change resistance and employing the right strategies, from clear communications to early adopter advocates, you can empower your team to embrace the new and use it to their advantage.

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