“The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different” –Peter F. Drucker, thought leader, author, and “founder of modern management”
If Drucker’s quote makes you uneasy, you aren’t alone. Fear of change is inherently human1. And while it may seem like the issue of managing organizational change is more pressing today, it has long been a concern in the workplace—for business leaders and employees alike.
Consider the following passage from a January 1969 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article:
“One of the most baffling and recalcitrant of the problems which business executives face is employee resistance to change. Such resistance may take a number of forms—persistent reduction in output, increase in the number of ‘quits’ and requests for transfer, chronic quarrels, sullen hostility, wildcat or slowdown strikes, and, of course, the expression of a lot of pseudological reasons why the change will not work.”
The language may be a bit dated, but the issue is as relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago. Numerous studies have identified change management as a top issue at organizations. In a recent McKinsey & Company study, three-quarters of respondents said organizational agility—which McKinsey defines as “the ability to quickly reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities”—is a top or top-three priority on their departments’ agendas.
The HBR article touches on two major challenges: understanding that resistance to change does not stem from technology itself but largely from social and human factors, and, second, finding ways to improve collaboration within organizations in the context of change.
The article includes approaches to overcoming resistance to change, including:
- Get people to “participate” in the change. For you, the employee, this means making the effort to learn about the impending change, and taking advantage of the resources your organization provides.
- Recognize the nature of the resistance, that what employees fear is not the technological change, but the social change. Acknowledge your fear and overcome it by finding out how will it affect you—in terms of day-to-day and long-term. What will change, and what will not? What new opportunities will it create? How can you use it to be more productive, efficient and innovative?
- Understand that resistance can come from roadblocks that are created when leaders are preoccupied with the technical aspects of change. What support and services will your organization provide to help you adapt? Identify any roadblocks to learning that could hold you back and share them with company leadership.
- Management can take concrete steps to deal constructively with resistance, such as emphasizing new performance standards and encouraging employees to think differently. They can also look at resistance as a warning signal that the communication and timing of changes need reconsideration. Identify and understand your own feelings about the change. Are you open to new ways of working? Has your organization provided you with what you need to stay productive and engaged during the transition?
- Organizational leaders can also make efforts at departmental meetings where change is being discussed—by shifting their attention from schedules, technical details and work assignments, to how the change could affect employees and create resistance. How, overall, will this change affect your ability to do your job? Share your thoughts with company leaders, and provide ideas about how the process can be improved.
Are you open to new ways of working? Has your organization provided you with what you need to stay productive and engaged during the transition?
As the author notes in a retrospective commentary to the HBR article, employees aren’t the only people who resist change: “It is difficult to find any managers today who do not, at times, feel greatly distressed because of changes with their own resistance level running fairly high. We are all, at times, resistors as well as instigators of change.”
Those who work to understand their own motivations when faced with change will be better equipped to handle the disruptions of the future.
1. “Why we’re hardwired to hate uncertainty,” by Marc Lewis, April 4, 2016, The Guardian
Jen is an award-winning journalist who writes about workplace productivity and technology for Vitalyst. She believes in the power of using plain language, especially when writing about technology, and lists “achieving and enabling clarity” among her life goals.