I’m always leery of people who say they love change.  I wonder what they’re hiding behind their rosy façade.  We may learn to adapt to it, we may learn to recognize there is a huge advantage in staying agile and nimble, but at our core, we often downright fear it.  We resist it in overt (and sometimes very covert) subtle ways.  A new organizational change is announced, and I think silently to myself, “Yeah right, they’ve tried this before.  It won’t last.” And then I passive aggressively go about my business of doing exactly what I was doing before.  Or perhaps I resist more vocally rather than passively.  But the bottom line is we typically do resist. 

When I teach a course on Leading Change, managers often complain about resistance and the challenge of getting buy in when it comes to change.  And a challenge it is indeed.  The trick in navigating it isn’t to push hard and fast to timetables and tactical schedules.  You’ll just get more resistance.  The trick is to take a step back and think about where the resistance is coming from.  And then take a more considered action.  When people resist change, it’s typically because one of our core needs have been threatened.  Core needs come in a few different categories.  Let’s take a look at them.

Core Needs typically triggered by Change Initiatives

Security – our most basic need.  The need to feel safe, that our livelihoods are protected, that we know where our next paycheck is coming from.  Think about the impact of the following actions on a person’s sense of security:

  • A large percentage of employees have received termination “pink slips,” and you have not told those remaining about their futures.
  • You communicate if people do not get on board with this change quickly, they will be let go.
  • You announce a downsizing without any other information.

Inclusion and Connection – another very basic need.  Humans crave a feeling of belonging, whether it’s a work or at home. 

  • You do not ask for people’s input on matters that are important to them, especially if you have had an ongoing work relationship with them.
  • You move people to new work teams where they know only a few people or no one at all.
  • You create an exclusive group of people to help shape the change and exclude many others for no apparent reason.
  • You avoid responding to people who make requests of you.

Power – or status, is an important driver for many people.  Change often accompanies a change in power or status for affected staff.  Have you ever experienced the following:

  • You announce position changes without warning.
  • You change your normal decision-making process without notice for key decisions.
  • You reorganize, shifting peoples’ relative power in the org, and provide no clarity of people’s new roles.

Order and Control – there may be a few lucky folks who thrive in chaos, but many don’t.  Unclear expectations are the number one source of conflict in teams and change often precipitates these conditions. 

  • You engage people but provide no direction for their work.
  • You provide no change roadmap or process plan to stakeholders impacted by the change.
  • You do not make the impacts of the content changes overt, and people are left to worry about how they might be negatively affected.

Competence – accountability without competency is a recipe for disaster and often sets up an environment of blame and shame.

  • You impose a change that requires new skills or knowledge and do not provide adequate training or learning time before people are held accountable to perform in the new system.
  • You place key leaders in very visible new roles requiring their immediate action with no room for error or course correction.
  • You lay the expectation for accomplishing this change in a very short time period on top of people’s already excessive workloads.

Fairness and Justice – a lack of perceived fairness is one of the quickest ways to erode trust.

  • Without explanation, you overlook people with seniority or expertise when staffing new, higher positions.
  • You decide to split up long-standing work teams with no logical rationale, with some of the people being seen as winners and others as losers in the change.
  • You do not make the criteria used for staffing decisions overt.

Maybe you recognize previous actions you or others have taken as you look at the above list.  Chances are those actions were unintentional, and you had no desire to put others in a place of distress.  But when you’re getting resistance it’s important to think beyond compliance and think about the why.  The more you’re plugged into the core needs of those affected by the change, the better off you’ll be at navigating concerns.

Coaching questions for thought:

  • How does my existing change strategy and plan likely threaten core needs and trigger resistance?
  • What do I need to add, remove, or modify in my change strategy and plan to minimize resistance and maximize commitment?

Shelley Pernot is a career and leadership coach who is passionate about helping her clients discover their talents and step into their greatness.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!

  1. Suzzana George August 4, 2023 at 3:25 am

    This is a great article Shelley! It really resonated with me. Thank you. I hope all is well.

  2. Ian Hallett August 4, 2023 at 9:34 pm

    Great article as always – love the concrete examples (that I have witnessed, experienced, and committed many times)! I learned over time to call any change a “pilot program/project/etc.” because even if intended it to be permanent, I would certainly reverse course it if it wasn’t working; that lowered everyone’s fear. I also learned to tell my team exactly how and when they would get to give feedback on the change and make changes of their own to the change (usually, end of each day for operational issues and end of week or month for programmatic issues).