Two things that people tend to dislike are change and being told what to do. This can make it difficult for employers to introduce new policies and initiatives, even when employees’ best interests are in mind. According to The Balance Careers article, “What is Resistance to Change,” by Susan M. Heathfield, “Resistance to change is the act of opposing or struggling with modifications or transformations that alter the status quo. This resistance can manifest itself in one employee, or the workplace as a whole.” Resistance to change by employees can take many forms. At times, an entire workforce may organize to protest change, while at others, only a handful of employees covertly resist change. Actions such as criticism, sarcastic remarks, missed meetings, arguments, failed commitments, sabotage, and decreased productivity can stem from an individual’s resistance to change. Since resistance to change can cause significant conflict in the workplace, we decided to look into the psychological factors behind this common issue.
It didn’t take long for us to come across a concept known as Reactance Theory. According to The Decision Lab, an applied research firm specializing in behavioral science, Reactance Theory was proposed by Jack W. Brehm in 1966 and states that “When an individual feels that their freedom or control is being threatened by advice, they are motivated to protect their autonomy.” People value the freedom to make their own decisions whether they are small children, teenagers, or middle-aged employees. When a new workplace policy is perceived as a restriction to one’s freedom, it is likely that some employees will be uncooperative. The Decision Lab lays out the four principles of reactance theory as the following:
- For reactance to occur, an individual must believe that they have control or freedom over the outcome of a given situation.
- Reactance to a threat to freedom will only be as great as the perceived importance of the freedom. If an individual doesn’t care about having a choice in a particular matter, they are unlikely to resist orders.
- Reactance will increase as more freedoms are threatened. For this reason and others, it is not a great idea to introduce many new policies at once.
- Reactance to a threat may increase when other threats to freedom are implied.
Reactance Theory isn’t the only explanation for employee’s resistance to change. According to the Forbes article, “Overcome the 5 Main Reasons People Resist Change,” by Lisa Quast, fear of the unknown/surprise, mistrust of decision makers, loss of job security or control, bad timing, and an individual’s predisposition toward change are all contributing factors.
The first three factors revolve around a sense of security and trust in decision makers. Failure to inform and prepare employees for upcoming changes far enough in advanced can increase anxiety, which, in turn, increases resistance. The same is true when employees lack trust in decision makers. The article explains that employees are more likely to accept change implemented by highly respected managers. New managers who have not yet gained the trust and respect of their employees are likely to face increased resistance to change. It is no surprise that individuals will resist change if they believe that their job is at stake. The same is true when employees have good reason to believe that their job titles and responsibilities will change without their input. People need a sense of security and control over their own livelihoods.
Timing is another factor that causes employees to resist change. As mentioned above, introducing too many changes at once can overwhelm employees and cause resistance. It is important for change to be implemented gradually so that employees are given adequate time to acclimate. While out of an employer’s control, the final contributing factor, an individual’s predisposition toward change, is important to consider when introducing new policies. Some people are more tolerant of change than others. It is to be expected that some employees will see the benefit of change and will be fully on board while others will approach the change with varying degrees of hesitancy and resistance. Employers must prepare for a range of reactions in order to introduce and implement change as smoothly as possible.
Understanding the many factors that cause individuals to resist change allows employers to introduce new policies in a manner that reduces resistance and promotes employee buy-in. The following strategies can help employers successfully implement change.
Include Employees in Decision Making: Reactance Theory attests to the human need for control over one’s situation. Employees who will be affected by the change should be consulted whenever new policies or initiatives are being considered. Open communication is important for gaining employee’s trust and support. When employees remain informed throughout the decision-making process and are able to contribute to the conversation with their own suggestions or concerns, they are more likely to be on board with change.
Provide Advanced Notice of Change: As discussed above, fear of the unknown, surprise, and poor timing are all factors that increase resistance to change. Even if employees cannot be involved in the decision-making process, it is important that they are given plenty of time to adjust to new policies. It is important for employers to explain why changes are being made and how they will affect day to day operations.
Avoid Forceful Tactics and Offer Choices: The Houston Chronical Small Business article, “Reactance Theory & Employee Performance,” by Shelly Moore states, “A polite and rational request to employees tends to work better than heavy persuasive tactics or direct orders, even when they know they must comply.” Once again, people value the ability to make their own decisions. When people feel that their freedom to choose is being taken away and that they will be forced to do something, they are likely to resist change.
In summary, there are many factors that cause individuals to resist change in the workplace. It is human nature to desire a sense of control over one’s situation, which must be considered when implementing change in the workplace. Involving employees in decision making, being transparent about upcoming changes, and avoiding forceful tactics that trigger reactance are all strategies that gain employees’ trust and support of new policies and initiatives.
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