Overcoming Change Resistance in 2021

Now here’s a funny thing: if you search for “overcoming management change resistance” with or without adding “work from home”, you get many, many links to articles about employee resistance to change. But almost nothing about management’s desire to “go back to normal” or “keep the status quo”. Which seems a bit unfair when you consider the numerous articles that have come out recently about how employers are going back on promises made in late 2020 and early 2021, especially when it comes to the issue of remote work.

As the summer of 2021 approached, and it looked like maybe the pandemic was under control to some extent and vaccines were rolling out, many companies started saying that, come the fall, workers would be expected to be back at their cubicles, despite what spokespeople may have said previously. Apple was one, Google another, Amazon a third; Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Ernst & Young, Morgan Stanley and other financial sector heavy hitters also took various hard lines on the subject. Other companies, like Facebook and Uber, said they were aiming for at least 50% in-office capacity by September’s end. Still others, such as Twitter, took a softer approach, as did Salesforce (and Slack, which they own).

That’s not to say that employee change resistance hasn’t also been an enormous challenge. Throughout 2020 and still ongoing today, organizations have had to quickly implement remote work policies, train employees on new workflows and technologies, and deal with a comprehensive culture change. And it needs to be noted that there are employees who also want to return to the ways things were, and who dislike change just as much as management does (maybe even more so).

However, the Delta variant, and the looming threats of Lambda and Mu, and perhaps as-yet-unnamed variants to come, are changing plans again, with many companies pushing their return to office to 2022. Management is now challenged with “The Great Wait”, while employees are adapting to return-to-work changes announced, sometimes weekly, that greatly affect their lives.

Organizational Inertia

There’s a thing called organizational inertia, the overall desire to keep things going they way they always have, making it difficult for an organization to adapt to demands for change, be they internal or environmental. You can see this played out by overburdened (and overburdening) bureaucratic structures, ineffective decision-making and even internal power struggles.

While it’s totally understandable that organizations need to recoup losses, for many of them it seems they simply cannot conceptualize doing that any other way than how they did things in 2019. Instead of reworking their ideology around a new normal, they simply push their own “return to normal” deadline further and further out. There’s a very real psychological desire, almost a need, to view the pandemic as a temporary situation instead of a catalyst for real and beneficial change.

When it comes to working from home, survey after survey has shown that employees are for it. They have worked through their change resistance to see the benefits of a virtual workplace, or are unwilling to settle for what they perceive as unfulfilling or underpaid work. The number one reason cited by workers who want to have at least a part-time work-from-home option is the commute, which is now seen by many as just wasted time that could be spent doing other, better things. So, many employees are voluntarily leaving their jobs to seek a more accommodating workplace elsewhere. Some analysts are calling this the “Big Quit”.

This tension between management inflexibility and employee desires is causing real resistance among the workforce. As some organizations become more insistent that the old way is the right way, many employees are starting to mentally enter the “life is too short economy” mindset, losing engagement and buy-in to an organization that no longer seems to be a good fit for them. Or they are actively pushing back, with employee-led letters and meetings addressing these matters in-house, but also in the wider world of social media and the news cycle.

This is a real problem and it’s not going away any time soon. Many workers have tasted a new way of doing things, for them a better way, and don’t understand why their employers cannot accept their new demands. Management teams are facing very real financial concerns, to which employees don’t seem overly empathetic.

In order to understand how such a large segment of the workforce has come to be at loggerheads with management, it might be beneficial to look at some of the underlying causes of organizational inertia and change resistance.

Change Resistance Solutions

The underpinnings of change resistance have been around for much longer than the current pandemic, germinating in psychological and emotional frameworks that humans have been using for thousands of years. And while we talk of “organizations” as if they are entities in and of themselves, they are made up of people, people who often resist change due to these same psychological factors. Once the barriers are identified and understood, direct solutions can be implemented to counter change resistance.

This goes for individuals who are facing changes being implemented from on high but can be equally applied to employees’ suggested changes. In the case of a top-down approach, it means putting together a solid implementation plan that includes preparing for, addressing and monitoring change resistance among employees. When suggesting changes to those further up the hierarchy, keeping these psychological factors in mind will help you make your case more cogently, with a higher chance of success.

  • Control – When changes are imposed from the outside, we often feel as if we lack autonomy and control of what happens in our lives.
    • Solution: Invite everyone affected into the brainstorming and planning stages of the changes. Allowing them to participate will help restore some sense of control.
  • Uncertainty – The unknown could be perceived as some sort of threat or potentially unsafe, so we tend to shy away from new things. What will happen and how we should react becomes unclear due to a lack of information.
    • Solution: Make the changes clear – not just what they are but why they are happening. Set a clear timeline for the changes and make it available to all stakeholders. If possible, assure people that nothing too drastic is happening (or if it is, there’s a good reason for it).
  • The Unexpected – Another factor that can contribute to a sense of loss of control (and so uncertainty) is suddenly springing changes on people.
    • Solution: Forewarned is forearmed. Drop hints in advance of the announcement, letting people get used to the idea of doing things differently. When it comes time to actually implement the changes, consider doing so in gradated stages rather than all at once. Get feedback along the way and be willing to make adjustments, so people feel they are included in the process.
  • Unfamiliarity – Humans are creatures of habit, and we often subscribe to the notion of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. By getting into routines, we can sometimes increase efficiencies. But when we over-rely on routine, we can get stuck in a rut and ignore creativity and flexibility. When change is introduced, it can disrupt those routines which can feel like a threat.
    • Solution: Make it familiar and recognizable. Outline why the changes need to happen clearly and concisely. Address exactly how the change will affect routines that are already in place and the expected benefits. Let them see that there really is a method at work, and you’re not making changes just to “mix things up”.
  • Self-confidence – Many people will ask themselves, “What if I can’t adjust to the new way of doing things?” They may worry that, even if they perceive the change as positive, they won’t be able to fit into the new workflows or culture.
    • Solution: Make sure everyone affected by the changes have ready access to resources and expertise that will help them make the transition. The organization also needs to understand that not everyone will be able to adapt at the same speed, and a support system should be in place to assist those who are struggling.
  • Risk – In extreme cases, people may suspect they are being set up somehow, that the higher-ups know they will not be able to adjust and adapt. Some people might be asking themselves is, “Am I on the outs? Am I going to be asked to train my own replacement? Is that what’s really happening?”
    • Solution: Be honest and transparent and fair, which perhaps is even more important. Make sure people don’t feel threatened in any way, which they will if they don’t understand what’s going on or why, or if they perceive themselves or others being treated in a way they deem unfair. And, again, signposting things in advance will help people get used to the changes that are coming.
  • Guilt by Association – Sometimes legacy systems need to be replaced but the people in charge of the changes are the same people who pushed for or maintained the old way, which is now seen to be less than optimal. So, some might question whether those people can be trusted to usher in the changes.
    • Solution: Acknowledge that things have changed, maybe because the old system was a mistake, but more likely because the world keeps on turning and many things have changed outside the organization that require some pivoting. Sure, the same people may be in charge, but the system they will be implementing and directing will be different, so different outcomes are sure to follow. 
  • The Big Picture – More organization-focused people might ask themselves what the unintended consequences of these changes will be. Could one change in one department ripple out to adversely affect things elsewhere? Is it all going to end in tears one day?
    • Solution: In addition to the reasoning behind the proposed changes, share the success metrics, methodologies and tools that will be used to measure the effectiveness of the changes. Make sure everyone understands how they will be affected by the new way of doing things – from the individual level all the way up to whole departments, divisions and beyond. And be willing to adjust on the fly as need be.

By remembering that your organization is made up of people and not just job descriptions (that goes for both employees and management), and anticipating likely reactions to what you hope to implement, you can put a plan in place to preemptively address concerns and alleviate the anxiety that comes naturally from change resistance. By making people partners in that change, they will retain a sense of control and safety, and be more likely to adapt and thrive in the new way of doing things.