Updated: May 26, 2020
One of the most difficult tasks in organizational change is convincing other people to get on board. This is especially difficult at large companies where you have to convince hundreds or thousands of people to go along with it and stop resisting. I was perplexed for years by people’s innate resistance to change even when the change was objectively good for them, or so I thought. Self-management, for example, has nothing but positive benefits every employee can agree on and would love to have— more evenly distributed pay and power, efficient meetings, abundant freedom — yet countless individuals still push back against it and actively deny its benefits. What is it that makes most organizations spend far too much time and money battling the resistant masses?
It is often the result of forcing a change rather than offering it, which is regularly done with benevolent intentions. Typically, the choice is made at the top and every employee simply has to accept the change. Alas, companies do need to evolve every so often, which means their employees need to evolve with them. Sometimes, changes just need to be made. But regardless of how necessary or beneficial a change is, if it feels forced, it will be resisted. This begs the question: how do you implement large changes effectively and with little resistance without forcing it upon anyone (especially if the change is necessary)?
Stealing The Car
Making the executive decision to transition your organization to self-management (or making any large, important change) is like me stealing your car and replacing it with a brand new Tesla. When you question why I stole your car, I will say, “The Tesla is faster, safer, more technologically advanced, potentially better for the environment, has cheaper upkeep — the benefits are endless and the drawbacks are few if any.”
If you are anything like the vast majority of participants I’ve presented this hypothetical scenario to, you’ll likely refuse the Tesla and demand your car back. You will feel betrayed by me making this change on your behalf without consulting you or giving you a choice in the matter. You will stop trusting me and my decisions. You will do everything in your power to reverse the decision, undo the change, and resist the transition. You will want your car back, even if there is no logical reason that you should prefer your beat-up machine over a modern feat of technological marvel.
On paper, looking only at the numbers, the Tesla is probably better than your car in nearly every way, so I automatically assume there’s no reason you wouldn’t want the change. So what is it that prevents people from wanting a change that will only be good for them? There are many factors at play that make forced changes undesirable, and they all stem from the fact that everyone else sees things differently than ourselves.
Autonomy and Choice
Humans crave autonomy and thrive when they have it. I want to get in shape and eat right, but if you force me to do it, I’m going to defiantly do the opposite in an act of rebellion. Even if you do manage to get me to do it, I’ll stop with those behaviors as soon as you stop forcing me. I’m not doing it because I want to but because you are making me. Likewise, I want the option of choice in all things, from the music I hear to the car I drive. The truth is, I won’t appreciate the greatest car in the world if it is the only car to choose from.
Whatever the change, you have to ensure that those affected feel like they have a choice and can make the conscious, adult decision to either do it or not. If you give me all the information and the freedom to choose, I’ll undoubtedly choose the best option every time.
If I value safety, luxury, and new technology, then someone replacing my car with a Tesla would be the greatest gift ever. I would absolutely love that change and wouldn’t resist it whatsoever. On the other hand, if you value off-road capability and towing power because of your weekend hobbies, someone replacing your pickup truck with a Tesla would feel like a life-ruining punishment. Even if you do value the same things as me, you may not value them as highly as I do. You might openly admit a Tesla is better than your car, but maybe it isn’t better enough to warrant all inconvenience involved with changing cars. If a slightly better car means you’ll have to move your belongings from one car to another, register a new vehicle, get used to driving something different, and so on, you might just prefer to stick with your car and avoid the unnecessary hassles.
Everyone values different things for different reasons and what is a godsend to you might be meaningless to someone else. Pitching a change based solely on how it benefits you does nothing to show how it will benefit anyone else. You must figure out how a change will improve the lives of each individual employee and adjust your value messaging accordingly.
Even if you and I both value the same things, the same change might have wildly different impacts on us because of where we are personally, professionally, mentally, etc. If I have a house where I can charge my Tesla overnight and there are charging stations at my place of work, then the convenience of a Tesla means I never have to go to a gas station and I save time and money every single day. Meanwhile, if you live in an apartment complex and don’t have easy access to charging stations, you will regularly have to go out of your way and sit in a strange parking lot to charge your car. It’s more inconvenient and stressful than stopping at the gas station close to where you live. Thus, your old car was actually more convenient because of factors beyond your control.
It’s important to remember that any change will affect people very differently. We need to not only be aware of those differences but also consider and respect those differences in how we implement change.
Offering the Keys
We now know why forced changes are resisted, but if you can’t force the car, what other option is there? Simple: You offer them the keys. The traditional change management approach commonly follows this process:
The change is implemented for everyone
Everyone is told the new things is better and/or necessary
Everyone is assured it will be worth it when they eventually get used to the new way of working
We’ve already discussed why that probably won’t work — no matter how amazing the new product/process is. It is being forced on them with no choice in the matter and it may not actually be beneficial for many of those impacted. Instead, change management should follow a process more like this:
A change is implemented alongside the current systems/processes
Everyone is told of the benefits and/or necessities of the new systems/processes
Employees are left alone (at least for a period of time) to transition on their own terms
Using this approach, rather than me stealing your car, I simply set a new set of keys on the table and let you know you are free to switch cars whenever you want to. Then, I take the responsibility of convincing you how it would benefit you personally. If I do a good enough job, and it is actually a beneficially change, you will want to drive the Tesla. I won’t have to fight you and you won’t feel like you have no say in the matter. That’s a win-win situation.
Similarly, when making organizational changes, don’t tell anyone, “This is how it is now. You will eventually realize it’s better and thank me.” Instead, put yourself in their shoes, empathize with their situation, and understand what you are selling well enough to explain how they would benefit from it — not just how the company would benefit from them using it. Here is one example of how to do just that:
Are meetings actually better in this new system? Have employees run the current and new meeting formats side-by-side with the same people and the same prompts, changing only the meeting format itself. If the new system is actually better, they will experience first-hand how the new format benefits them personally and they will be eager to transition to the new process. They are on board and spreading the word to their friends and colleagues. What used to take you six months now takes fifteen minutes.
Next time you’re running into resistance, before questioning what they aren’t getting, just remember:
Offer the keys — Don’t force the car.
What changes have you had forced upon you that would have been welcomed had you been given a choice? Have you implemented beneficial changes but still saw resistance and hesitation in those affected? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!