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Computer Says No: how to deal with resistance to change

Olivia FitzGerald

December 8 2016,
Olivia FitzGerald

We’re all guilty of resistance to change to some extent, but in an organisation this can be a genuine problem when you’re upgrading your systems or introducing new ones.

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Resistance to change is hardly a new problem: Harriet O. Ronken and Paul R. Lawrence studied it for Harvard Business School back in 1952, and Lawrence would go on to write a detailed guide to managing resistance for Harvard Business Review in 1969. For Lawrence, resistance to change should not simply be thought of as something to be overcome:

“Instead, it can best be thought of as a useful red flag—a signal that something is going wrong. To use a rough analogy, signs of resistance in a social organisation are useful in the same way that pain is useful to the body as a signal that some bodily functions are getting out of adjustment.”

So how do you deal with it when you are trying to make The Big Switch to a new restaurant technology platform? Here are four points to anticipate and consider:

1. Stop it before it starts

One of the first steps is to consider how you’re handling change management in the first place. According to a 2014 study by change management specialists Prosci, some managers felt that more than half of employee resistance was completely avoidable if change management principles had been followed from the outset.

Those principles include:

  • Having senior leaders as visible and active champions of change

  • Getting management, middle management and front-line supervisors to be advocates of change

  • Communicating the need for change and its benefits to combat the “What’s in it for me?” question, or WIIFM for short.

2. Expect it

Resistance to change is part of human nature: we’re all familiar with the concept of comfort zones and our preference for the status quo. You can’t stop resistance from happening, but you can expect it and prepare for it. In the initial stages of your project, it’s often possible to identify where resistance is likely to come from - particular employees, or particular groups - and to be proactive about it, identifying the pain points concerned employees may fear and knowing the benefits you want to communicate.

In many organisations, resistance tends to come from several perspectives:

  • Expectations that the new way of doing things just means more work

  • People who championed a solution you decided not to choose

  • People who helped create the current system or systems

  • Cynicism: here comes another hair-brained scheme from head office

By preparing for these concerns and addressing them early, you can mitigate some of the most serious resistance without significant drama.

3. Communicate

Poor communication is another key driver of resistance to change. As the Prosci survey found, participants tended to identify the same issues behind employee resistance:

  • Lack of understanding about why the change is being made

  • Concerns about its impact on employees’ job roles

  • Lack of confidence due to previous, unsuccessful changes

  • Lack of visible support and commitment from key managers

  • Fear that changes would result in job losses

Many of these concerns can be addressed by effective communication, especially if that communication comes via senior staff, managers and supervisors. Supervisors are particularly important, as they tend to be the person closest to the employee who needs some reassurance. That means it’s crucial to ensure supervisory employees are fully on board with the changes and have the resources they need to act as advocates for change.

Of all the issues, the “why” is the biggest: if employees are convinced that changes are necessary and that those changes will be beneficial, they’re more likely to support the project rather than obstruct it.

4. Listen carefully, and tell the truth

Communication is a two-way street, and it’s important that staff feel their concerns are being listened to and taken seriously. Don’t assume that if someone isn’t vocal they don’t have concerns: many employees won’t express opinions or fears unless they’re asked directly. And don’t dismiss concerns that seem incredibly minor. If that minor issue is someone’s favourite bit of their job, it’s not a minor change.

It’s important to be honest, too: if a new system is going to generate some short-term hassle for people, don’t pretend otherwise. That’ll just come back to bite you when the hassle inevitably appears. The same applies to organisational changes or procedural changes that will occur during or after the roll-out. If you’re up-front about everything then you’ll earn employees’ trust, especially if you’re as honest about the negatives as you are enthusiastic about the positives.

Last but not least, keep the lines of communication open throughout the rollout and beyond. Few systems are perfect on day one, so it’s important to keep talking to employees to discover any issues that may have emerged. The more involved employees feel, the less likely they are to resist change.

Points to remember

  • Resistance to change is a fact of life so prepare for the inevitable.

  • Poor communication and a lack of project champions are recipes for failure

  • Remember “What’s In It For Me?” This will help you to address employee concerns and interests.

  • Don’t just talk: listen. That way you will have the opportunity to respond to any issues and fine-tune your technology roll-out as required.

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