Do Humans Really Resist Organisational Change?

Humans expressing their feelings about mandated change

It’s a big question, no doubt about it! So let’s start from the beginning…

There’s a commonly held belief at present, as evidenced by the amount of times it’s mentioned in organisations and a quick Google search (which includes references to scientific studies and psychology sources).

And the belief is that humans naturally resist change.

It’s often considered the bane of senior people in organisations, who try to impose top-down mandates that a particular change must happen, it must be wide-spread or all-encompassing, and it must happen incredibly quickly — usually to fulfil an ambitious strategy that no one else really knows or cares much about.

And as the change initiative falters over time, this usually then leads to more change.

Members of the project team leading the change may be swapped out. The way the project is managed might be revised. Senior people supporting the change double down on implementing or revising policies with consequences for not adopting the change. External consultants may be brought in; and a whole host of other bizarre and expensive efforts can take place.

By the time there’s a glimmer of hope that things might actually get on track, the original change has probably become redundant or something else takes priority (usually another change initiative!)

Think about this for a moment. Maybe recall a similar situation you’ve been (or are still going) through, either as the leader of change or being on the receiving end.

Let’s face it, if it’s anything like what you just read, it was doomed from the start.

The first clue is that the change is initiated and driven from the top-down. Given that we as human beings are free folk (within the boundaries of the systems we live in), with our own initiative and capable of making our own decisions based on our own thinking, having change forced upon us is never going to sit well.

Particularly if those who decided to make this change are so far detached from the reality of what that change will really mean for the humans it’s being forced upon.

The second clue is that the change often comes with a number of ‘must dos’ that are non-negotiable. This suggests we’re probably not quite as empowered or free to think and make decisions for ourselves as we’re led to believe and our opinions don’t really matter, which is never a good sign.

And then there’s the change itself:

What actually led to it being decided that it was a good thing?

What evidence is there to support the supposed benefits that are being touted?

What’s the fundamental purpose of the change? Why even do it in the first place and why that particular change and not something else?

The common answers may be surprising (or not if you’re used to them):

  • It was based on a HIPPO (Highest Paid Persons Opinion) who thought it sounded like a good idea
  • Other people are doing it so there’s a need to get on the bandwagon to stay competitive
  • It’s seemingly the cool thing to do at the moment
  • A spreadsheet suggests we’ll get X return on investment / profit / cost savings / non-cash releasing efficiency gain / [insert clever business lingo here]
  • A strategy document says it must be done
  • There’s X budget left that needs to be spent by end of financial year
  • It’s the directive from the top

I mean, really. Would you buy into change and support personally adopting or driving it if these were the justifications?

Well it’s pretty simple actually. Respect the humans.

Start with open, honest communication. The change is just an idea to begin with, so share that idea with fellow humans. Tell the story behind the idea, what you know about it currently that makes it seems like a good thing to embrace, but also the potential challenges and downsides. Get feedback. Explore different perspectives. Determine the level of appetite for what change the idea could lead to and find out what people want to know to help them make up their minds.

Once you’ve realised whether it’s worth moving forward with, start to develop a proposal about how to make the idea a reality and what the resulting change could mean for other humans. Be transparent — share the work in progress with others and absolutely allow for others to help shape and ultimately own the proposal.

If the majority of humans agree to proceed with the proposal, awesome! It’s a goer. But keep in mind you’re never going to fully please everyone and equally that’s not a reason for ignoring what less enthusiastic individuals are thinking or feeling. Their opinions are just as valid as the supporters.

And then it’s a case of maintaining those human connections and principles of honesty, transparency and co-development. Let people take ownership. Acknowledge and trust the intelligence and competencies of others. Get as many people as feasible to input into the change as is happens and don’t be afraid to pause if things go awry. Keep reviewing if it’s right to continue with the change, if the change needs to look different or just needs scrapping altogether. Continuously learn and adapt — it’s what we’re good at.

Respect the humans. Don’t cause harm.

So to answer the question, do humans really resist organisational change?

No, not at all.

What we actually resist, is the lack of a human-centric approach to organisational change.

On a journey to unlock what it means to be human-centric. thehumancoach.co.uk