For business managers, one of the most complex and often frustrating of all human traits is the resistance to change, meaning that when a company or organization decides to implement drastic changes in a process or way of doing business, employees and supervisors are usually hard set against it, due to the fact that human beings are naturally inclined to resist change or in other words, to move away from the so-called status quo or traditional way of doing business.
As R. Di Camp points out, it is a truism or fact of life that change is the only constant, but regardless, “There are still many people who are skeptical about change and even more who find it a cause for anxiety” (2001). Di Camp also relates that people in general “are not brought up to be flexible, to look for opportunities, or to consider options” and that the “reaction of most people to change is driven by something they are not even conscious of” (2001). Therefore, in order for business managers to cope with this sometimes inexplicable human trait, they must first understand why organizations and the human beings that work for them are resistant to change.
Organizational Resistance to Change
According to Stephen Robbins, author of the book Organizational Behavior, American organizations and companies are generally conservative when it comes to change in any form or manner; in fact, the CEOs and supervisors that operate these entities actively resist change, due to believing that change is bad or unwarranted and that it could potentially interrupt the flow of progress and success. For example, many U.S. government agencies and departments refuse to change or to alter the “way they have been doing business for years” regardless of the urgent need to change their service delivery procedures. This resistance to change also applies to organized religion which in many ways could be viewed as a business entity; the same holds true for the American educational system which nowadays is considered as a business organization with the main goal being to make a profit. Of course, most major American business organizations continue to be highly resistant to change, especially if any proposed changes holds the potential to negatively affect not only company profits but also personal lifestyles and the weight of an individual’s pocketbook (2005).
Robbins provides six main reasons and/or causes why organizations continue to openly resist change. First of all, there is structural inertia or inter-organizational mechanisms that help to produce and maintain company stability. This has much to do with organizational formality related to selecting or hiring individuals to perform specific jobs or functions via “training and other socialization techniques (that) reinforce specific role requirements and skills” (2005). In essence, these techniques and formalities force employees as well as supervisors to behave, think, and respond in specific ways. Thus, when change is suggested or initiated, employees and managers become reluctant to change their ways, due to being conditioned.
Second, when a company-wide change or alteration is suggested, managers quickly realize that all of the interdependent sub-systems within an organization most probably will be affected. For instance, if “management changes the technological processes without simultaneously modifying the organization’s structure to match, the change in technology is not likely to be accepted” (Robbins, 2005). Third, there is group inertia or constraints that are caused by group norms or certain ways of thinking and believing. A good example is an “individual union member who may be willing to accept changes in his job suggested by management;” however, if “union norms dictate resisting any unilateral changes made by management,” he/she may not be willing to accept the changes and will likely do all that is possible to resist the changes (Robbins, 2005).
Fourth, if suggested changes holds the potential to threaten a person’s expertise in a particular job or process, such as operating a mainframe computer system upon which a company relies for access to information and data, the expert may strongly resist the suggested changes. As Robbins puts it, such an expert will feel threatened via his/her specialized skills that may no longer be needed, thus affecting the expert’s company position and status (2005).
Fifth, suggested changes could affect a person’s “decision-making authority” and long-held “power relationships within an organization” or company; and sixth, groups or individuals that control or manipulate organizational resources, such as a company’s budget or materials needed to accomplish a specific job, will feel threatened by change; in other words, individuals or groups that currently benefit from the status quo related to organizational resources will be hard-set to accept any changes (Robbins, 2005).
Individual Resistance to Change
When it comes to the individual, resisting change, whether job-related or related to one’s lifestyle, appears to be an inborn human trait. Robbins provides five specific human characteristics that exemplify the resistance to change–habit, security, economics, a fear of the unknown, and selective information processing. The first characteristic or trait is related to the idea that people are “creatures of habit” and in order to deal with the stress and anxieties that are part of everyday living and working, they “rely on habits or programmed responses” to certain situations. Thus, when a company manager or supervisor informs his employees that change is on the way, these “creatures of habit” respond with resistance (2005).
The second characteristic or trait is the feeling of security which becomes threatened when change is suggested or implemented in an organization or company. For example, when the company General Dynamics which manufactures parts and materials for automobiles, introduced new robotic equipment to manufacture parts, the workers that made these parts felt threatened by the change via the belief that their jobs would be eliminated (Robbins, 2005).
The third characteristic revolves around economics or more specifically, how suggested changes might affect an employee’s income. For instance, if a new billing automation system is introduced, workers become “concerned that they won’t be able to perform the new tasks or routines” which in turn could lead to being outsourced or replaced by more specialized workers (Robbins, 2005).
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic related to resisting change is a fear of the unknown or not knowing in advance what will happen when changes are introduced into an organization. For the business manager, coping with and/or eliminating this type of fear may be a most difficult task simply because human beings are internally wired to be afraid of what is not known. An excellent example is when a company introduces new a word processing system which forces workers to relearn specific skills. Thus, for many employees, a fear of the unknown may result in negative attitudes or a resistance to changing one’s ways and habits, therefore becoming dysfunctional (Robbins, 2005).
Lastly, there is selective information processing or selecting perceptions and ideals that maintain a person’s identity, lifestyle, and personal view of the world around them. As Robbins explains it, “individuals shape their world through their perceptions” and once this world or environment has been created, they resist change (2005). Of course, if an individual is too selective, it may affect their ability to understand reality and in the long-term could negatively influence their present job and future employment prospects.
Applying Lewin’s Theory of Change
One essential method that a business manager can utilize to help employees to accept change rather than resist it is Lewin’s Change Management Model or Theory of Change, “one of the cornerstone models for understanding organizational change” introduced by Kurt Lewin in the 1950’s. This model is composed of three separate stages–unfreeze, change, and refreeze which as an analogy is much like altering the shape of a block of ice (Lewin’s Change Management Model, 2013).
The first stage or unfreeze “involves preparing the organization (and its employees) to accept that change is necessary by altering the currently accepted status quo or how things are generally done or accomplished. Overall, the basic message of the unfreeze stage is to demonstrate that the “existing way of doing things cannot continue” which in effect compels employees and managers to at least accept the coming changes to their jobs or work environment. As one might suspect, this first stage of change is the most difficult to initiate because it literally “puts everything and everyone off-balance” (Lewin’s Change Management Model, 2013).
The second stage or change itself can best be described as when employees and managers “begin to resolve their uncertainty and look for new ways to do things.” This in effect is a transitional period which can take time to be effective, due to the fact that human beings need to know how specific changes in their job routines or work environment will benefit them, especially related to their future job prospects and earning power (Lewin’s Change Management Model, 2013).
The third stage or refreeze occurs when employees and managers begin to understand and appreciate the coming changes. Some of the signs of this refreeze process includes embracing the changes and even offering advice on how to make the changes better and more efficient. Thus, if the refreeze stage is successful, it will create a new sense of internal and external stability and confidence which in the long run will also benefit the organization’s reputation (Lewin’s Change Management Model, 2013).
Of course, when an organization or company begins the long and tedious process of initiating change, there is no guarantee that employees will accept the changes regardless of how effectively the message of change has been presented, such as through internal memos, documents, and even company seminars. Overall, as previously noted, human beings are not “hot-wired” to accept change; in fact, human seem to be biologically inclined to resist change, even when they know that change will be beneficial to them in the long-term. Therefore, it appears that the best way to initiate change in an organization is to introduce the changes very gradually in order for employees ( and sometimes customers and consumers) to understand the benefits and rewards of change and to accept them as part of their daily job routines and responsibilities.
Di Camp, R. (2001). Making change work: How to engage people’s hearts and minds in change.
Lewin’s change management model. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newPPM_94.htm
Robbins, S. Organizational behavior. New York: Prentice-Hall, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.explorehr.org/articles/Organization_Analysis/Individual_and_Organizational_Resistance.html