Why people resist change

Little_girl_on_swing

When managing change in business the focus is so often on monitoring time, money and process. It’s true that good project management skills are essential to successful change management, but we also need to lead people through the process and this involves understanding how human beings react to change.

The behaviour of my friend’s three year old daughter, Anna, illustrates the point. My friend was moving out of London to a bigger house in the country. She had told her daughter about the move but Anna had not reacted well and was refusing to enter into any discussions about her new life in the country. My friend explained to me that, every morning on the walk to Anna’s nursery in London, they passed a primary school. In the playground of this school were three bright yellow swings. “That’s the school I want to go to so that I can play on those swings” Anna had said. Her interest in swings seemed to be at the heart of her resistance to moving. Realising this, my friend checked out the primary school that her daughter would be attending in the country. Not only did this school have swings in the playground but also a climbing frame and a sandpit! She took Anna to see the school and the three year old was immediately converted. As the day of the move grows closer they have been visiting the new school as often as they can to maintain Anna’s enthusiasm. My friend’s daughter is now looking forward to her new life in the country – everyone is happy!

Although this story appears to be far removed from the complexities of the workplace, it does demonstrate some of the most fundamental principles of effectively managing and leading people through change.

1. Clearly articulate the benefits of change to your team. “We are moving and it’s going to be great” is not good enough. Human beings are naturally resistant to change and will not co-operate unless they understand and feel excited by the end goal.

2. Don’t assume that your enthusiasm for change is going to be shared by others. When talking about the new future think about what will motivate different people to support the project. Anna didn’t share her mother’s excitement about the new house, but she could become very enthusiastic about new swings! Similarly, in an ICT change programme for example, your Board of Directors might be turned on by the prospect of a good looking new website whereas, for your Finance team, the prospect of more streamlined processes for invoicing is more likely to motivate them to support change. Amend your change message for different audiences, find out what life looks like from their perspective, and highlight the benefits that will appeal directly to them.

3. Try to make your vision of the new future as clear and tangible as possible. My friend didn’t just talk to Anna about the new school, she took her there so that Anna could see for herself. Can you make the benefits of change come alive for your team?

4. Remind your team of the long term vision and the benefits of change at regular intervals. When the going gets tough and the end seems a long way off it is easy to lose sight of the overall goal. Keep that goal at the front of people’s minds to maintain their morale and motivation.

When dealing with adults it is useful to remember that some of the most childish instincts are at the heart of resistance to change. If you understand and deal with these instincts you have a much better chance of leading a motivated, supportive team through the change process.

Join the JPA Master Class “Managing change without the pain” on 20 May 2014 

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