Strategies for Project Managers to overcome resistance to change Part I

Every project will create change, so every project manager must get people to change. However, to get people to change, one needs to learn how to coerce people to want to embrace the change. If the change is happening from the bottom up, then the resistance to change will be low. If people were involved from the start, getting them to want to make the change would be easier. But, few projects are done in that manner. Projects are often due to a directive from the top or an organizational need for change. A change could be a pet project for an executive, so they will push to complete the change to take credit for the success. Or the project could be something the organization needs to do to become more competitive. Knowing the drivers for the change can help with the strategy to overcome resistance to change. Every project manager must be ready to overcome resistance to change in a manner that helps everyone get on board with the project and to make it successful.

Resistance to change can be broken down into several reasons people will use to avoid or undermine the change. Several strategies can be used to overcome this resistance. Of course, some might believe that a mandate from the top is reason enough and that people should fall into line to preserve their job, yet that is often insufficient to produce change. If change does stick, it will be temporary, and the organization will just get used to these fad changes and return to the status quo as soon as no one is looking. The reasons for change are: Homeostasis, fear, selfishness, blame, skepticism, avoidance, and groupthink. As each reason is explained, the strategy to overcome this resistance to change causes will be presented. 

Everyone prefers to avoid change, so it is crucial to understand the social undercurrents of this phenomenon. It is natural to avoid jumping out of an airplane because a fall from that height would undoubtedly lead to our death, yet when an individual is skilled and has a parachute, this feat becomes far less insidious. There are times when people have the right tools to engage and be successful with change, and there are times when people will resist or flee in a seeming act of self-preservation.

The first and one of the most likely reasons for the resistance is change is the human capacity for homeostasis. Homeostasis is the belief that work should not change and one does not need to learn anything new for continued employment. The saying, ‘ what if we train our people and they leave, as opposed to, what if we do not train them and they stay,’ comes to mind when thinking about change. Most people seem to believe that continual change is not a natural condition of life; hence, human beings resist change at every turn. This idea is quite counterintuitive as people continue to change throughout their lives. As a person grows older, they are quite different in appearance, ability, and knowledge. No one will remain the same from their 20s to their 50s. Yet people believe that it should not be the case at work. Somehow people often feel almost privileged that they should be rewarded for the same job for the entire time they are with a company.

Countering homeostasis requires education and explaining the benefits of the change to the parties. One must explain the benefits instead of dwelling upon the shortcomings of the change. One must also address the concerns of wanting things to stay the same. Do not be afraid to handle any significant concerns, as this will help to sell the change. Also, do not be scared to offer a possible outcome if the change is not completed. One must be honest but firm in the explanation. Do not make idle threats or unlikely promises. Tell the truth and explain the consequences precisely. Sometimes change means the difference between the company surviving tough economic times and going under. If that is the reality for the change, then make that clear as well. However, do not exaggerate to get people to buy in. Exaggeration leads to many problems as people feel tricked and manipulated, which will cause more harm than good. Also, in the long term, it will mean that people leave, as this will be another case of the company not being honest.

The second reason for organizational resistance to change is fear. People fear what they do not understand, and things that are not understood are human threats. People fear the unknown, not the fully understood, and fear that which cannot be examined. Projects will often mean taking a leap of faith from one place to another place that is not fully understood. By definition, the project vision is unknown, not fully understood, and cannot be examined. Sure, one can read the vision statement, but that does not mean it offers a way to experience the future state. 

Again, fear opens the door as an opportunity for education. People fear the unknown, so people can learn to embrace change faster through education. Everyone is a little nervous at the start of a new class. Isn’t that fear a natural reaction? The more one can do to eliminate that fear, the easier change becomes. Everyone has jitters on the first day, but those will fade in time, so one needs to be supportive and offer knowledge to help get through the fear. As with taking a class, remind people that so many others have been successful in the class. The success of others can bring confidence in others. If strangers can be successful, then why not everyone?

Some students would ask about the pass rate when taking a capstone class (the final 50-page thesis before graduation). My answer was 100%. All of my students passed the course because I would support them, remind them, educate them, and, if necessary, be relentless in asking for deadlines and progress. One could say I was a constant nag, but sometimes that is what it takes. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. The greased wheel gets across the finish line.

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