Are Your Employees Resisting Change? It May Be a Good Thing

By Dave Berube, Life Cycle Engineering

The fleet maintenance sector is experiencing many of the changes currently facing industries nationwide, including “green” initiatives, downsizing and equipment reliability initiatives. For vehicle maintenance shops embarking on a major change transformation there is one key activity that is paramount to success: coaching senior managers how to both recognize and manage employee resistance. As a consultant with many years of experience managing complex change I can attest to the fact that this is one of the make or break activities that you will face. 
Change managers will tell you that resistance is an expected outcome of change. They can discuss theories related to human behavior and even cite scientific studies showing how people are affected by change. Most of us have seen the negative effects of change when we attempt to take people out of their comfort zone. Knowing this information, change managers conduct training and spend many hours coaching leaders to manage this expected resistance.

When working with new clients I see and hear evidence of previous change transformations that failed because of employee resistance to change. So how in the world can I say that resistance to change is not as bad as you think and that it might actually be a good thing? Let me explain.

Change-Receptive Organizations

Some leaders wish for the fantasy island organization where all change is readily accepted and no resistance exists. In this fairy tale, all change is fully and universally embraced and people freely move out of their comfort zone into a new way of being simply in response to their leader’s request. In this utopia of change, the air is fresh and the water clean, birds are singing, and there is a hint of lavender carried by the gentle breeze. What could possibly be the downside to this change-receptive slice of heaven?

While great ideas would be quickly and smoothly incorporated into this resistant-free organization, so would bad ideas. Uh oh! At some time in our careers we have all experienced a few bad ideas implemented and sometimes with disastrous results.
Employee resistance to change can actually help prevent bad ideas from being implemented. It can also help prevent good ideas from getting implemented badly. This expected resistance will make us stop and think. It will lead us to develop strategies to generate a coalition of support and create buy-in in order to get our good ideas implemented.

We should greatly appreciate when employees express objections to our initiatives because this push back will compel us to:

  • Justify why change is necessary.
  • Take time to slow down, prioritize, strategize and create supporting plans.
  • Involve employees, listen and gather feedback.

Justification is Important

Most people resist change because they truly don’t understand why they are being asked to change. Therefore, we must answer their question: “Why is the change necessary?”

Resistance to change forces us to justify to our employees why we are changing. Leaders should provide assurance that the requested changes will actually enhance the organization. There needs to be a valid reason for the change and it should align with the organization’s vision, mission and values. 

A good reason “why” should be supported by establishing a business case for change. Otherwise, why should we embark on it? Does the change make financial sense? Does the change make sense in the short-term or is this a long-term plan?
When a clear justification is established and understood we must be ready to answer the next question: What about me? Meaning, how will this benefit the individual employee?

When changes occur, one of the greatest fears is uncertainty. Will I still have a job? Will I be demoted? Will I lose power, prestige or influence? Will I have to work more hours? Will I have to work fewer hours? Will my overtime be reduced to the point where I can’t pay my bills?
When we implement major change, the value proposition must be translated to employees in the context of what’s in it for me (WIIFM). This translation is critical because this is what they will be listening for.

Leaders often think that they can define the pros and cons at a personal level. They cannot. Only the individual employee can tell you the pros and cons of how a particular change will affect them.

Resistance to change by employees forces leaders to seek to understand how the pending change will impact their people. This can only be accomplished by communicating directly with employees. Communications should occur as early as possible and they should happen frequently.

Create Supporting Plans

Resistance to change forces us to slow down a bit and take the time needed to create comprehensive plans. Project managers know that their project’s success and failure are separated by risk.

A detailed plan must be created to mitigate project risks. Risks can be internal or external and should address items such as disruptions, resources, funding, timelines and coordination. Project risks associated with the people side of change must also be considered.

Risks must be analyzed and change management plans created, including a communication plan, plans to help our senior leaders and managers, and a detailed plan of how the change will be reinforced.

Risk Analysis - The people side of change can be seen as a risk to a project’s objectives. When evaluating the risk to a project, look at the size and scope of the change, as well as the specific characteristics of the organization related to change.

How big is the change? Does it change one group or everyone? Is everyone affected the same way or is the change different for each individual group? Is the organization saturated with many changes all happening at the same time? Are resources even available to make this change happen? Does the organization have a history of failed changes often referred to as “flavor of the month” syndrome?

Communication Plans - Justifying the what, why and WIIFM is usually accomplished through the communication plan. The plan should be crafted to address the needs of all affected groups throughout all aspects of the project.

Communication is constantly referred to as one of the things we can do better. This gap and its associated negative effect are magnified during events causing major change. When resistance to change forces us to create plans and communicate with our employees it reinforces the benefits of good communication.

These lessons learned can be carried over and applied to how we communicate daily with our people. 

Coaching plans for senior leaders and managers - One of the worst assumptions that change managers can make is to assume that senior leaders and managers know exactly what is expected of them during a transformation. Coaching plans should be developed to assist these key roles in executing the activities necessary to be successful.

Ask senior leaders to lead from the front, build coalitions of people to guide the initiative and communicate key messages. Ask managers to work directly with the people who are changing and provide two-way communication, manage resistance, lead by example, connect the project to the people and coach people through change, as well as make the change themselves. 

Reinforcement Plans - As we encounter resistance and take people out of their comfort zone, how do we keep them there? There must be a plan in place to reinforce those new behaviors or they will revert back to the old behaviors.
From the Plan-Do-Check-Act model (a four-step system for carrying out change), this would be considered a “check.” Check that the new behaviors are in the plans and coordinate this “check” function with incentives and rewards. These can range from a simple pat on the back to celebratory dinners, to bonuses, to promotions.

Creating reinforcement plans for major change often forces organization to evaluate the effectiveness of their current reward and recognition programs to ensure that the correct behaviors are being reinforced.

Involve employees, listen and gather feedback -
While many leaders may have some great ideas, they may not always be the best solution. When we get different points of view, we come up with a better solution.

Getting employees involved early in the process fosters better solutions. The ideas become “ours” or “the team’s,” not management’s ideas. This generates ownership and ownership minimizes resistance.

One of the greatest benefits to involving your employees in designing solutions is that it further enhances their skills and abilities in continuous improvement. This makes them more valuable employees.

We all need to listen more. When managers attempt to jointly develop solutions, their employees will tell them what is working and what isn’t. Listening provides feedback on whether the implemented changes are generating the results and associated return expected.

Resistance generates communication content. Listening for symptoms of resistance will allow managers to check if they are trying to implement a good idea or a bad idea.


Resistance to change is a normal human response. Employees will immediately seek to translate the change to a personal context, which can be greatly magnified by fear of the unknown.

When organizations have to address the WIIFM question with the workforce, it forces leaders to justify the reason for change. Addressing the reasons for change and involving the workforce in crafting solutions creates the best ideas and helps prevent bad ideas from being implemented.

So, go ahead and prepare for your next change transformation. Anticipate the expected resistance it will bring.
When you see evidence of employee resistance actually appear, just smile. Because now you know that resistance to change is a good thing, and it’s something that should not be feared. It should be embraced.

Dave Berube is a principal consultant for Life Cycle Engineering, a company that provides consulting, engineering, applied technology and education solutions that deliver lasting results for private industry, the Department of Defense and other government organizations. He has more than 30 years of experience in leadership and management. His expertise includes behavioral change management, project management and development, and process improvement within various types of organizations. You can reach Dave at [email protected]

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.


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