HR’s primary role in managing change-resistance

One of the most powerful things HR and leaders can do is simply to understand that everyone is different, stresses change-expert Jasmine Liew.

Resistance to change from all directions

About the author

Jasmine Liew

Jasmine Liew is the Organisation Change and Development Director of Breakthrough Catalyst LLP. She has been an HR practitioner for 16 years, specialising in Organisation Development, Change Management, Employee Engagement, Learning and Development.

Her span of regional HR experience encompasses the Singapore civil service, MNCs and the private sector in organisations like Panasonic, PSA and Cisco. 

Franklin Roosevelt, the American President once said that it “is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and you find no one there.”

As leaders and HR professionals, have you ever experienced the feeling of having no one behind you, or alongside you, when you are the change champion of your organisation, despite you having communicated or involved the stakeholders in the change journey.

Moreover, the impetus of change seems clear and pivotal as you may highlight a crisis or a major problem. Likewise, we may inspire our employees to move from the current state to a desired future state. To rationalise the change, we should paint a compelling, positive and rosy landscape that we are moving towards becoming a world class organisation, an employer of choice, a centre of excellence and innovation, and a future-ready organisation.

Despite our efforts to either paint a dismal or dazzling landscape between crisis or dreams, why do our employees, and sometimes, even the leadership and management team resist organisational changes? What are the root causes of their resistance, and how can we overcome or mitigate such resistance as change champions?

These are some of the common situational changes we as HR have to manage: organisation restructuring, merger and acquisition, new business and operational strategy, new organisation structure, new products and services, change of leadership and reporting lines, and of course, layoff of employees.

The starting point of resistance to change is at the individual level. In fact, it is normal for people to be wary, feel uncomfortable and uncertain and hence, dislike and resist change even if the change has positive ramifications. What triggers people to resist change is the psychological aspects of change which is transition.

In my previous organisation development and change management role with several organisations, I have noticed that the senior leadership, HR and functional heads were adept in formulating strategy, structure, policies and processes which looked into the 4Ws and 1 H – Why change? What needs to change? Who is responsible? How to do it? When can I see the change?

In our quest to get things done and ensure that the change is implemented given the tight timeline and resources, we may neglect or fail to focus on the people side of change.  To manage resistance to change, we need to understand and anticipate the natural psychological experiences faced by individuals when they transit from their old identities to the new ones. 

Three phases of transition

According to William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions, to overcome the resistance to change, is to start with understanding and helping our people go through the three phases of transition.

Phase 1 is the stage of ending, losing and letting go, during which individuals need to end and let go of what they know in order to change. When there is a merger and acquisition, organisation restructuring, job redesign, new products and services, change of reporting lines and job scope, we need to help them let go of their past identities and previous roles and also, enhance their working relationship with their new bosses and colleagues.

Phase 2 is the neutral zone where individuals know the past is over but the new identity, new way of thinking and doing have not been fully operationalised. This is a critical yet painful transition as individuals have to unlearn one’s past identity in the particular organisation, department and role, and undergo psychological realignment and repatterning.

Finally, to be ready for the third phase, which is the new beginning, individuals have to develop a new identity, new beliefs, new sense of purpose, new belonging and new habits so that the change is effective and sustainable.

Different folks, different strokes

One of the key factors to reduce and manage resistance to change is to understand that individuals are not against change. Instead they are fearful and uncomfortable with the psychological aspects arising from the transition.

Leaders and HR change champions may focus on the situational and structural changes but not the feelings of the affected individuals during the transition. As HR, we can facilitate individuals who are going through the transitions by identifying specifically how the individuals’ behaviour and attitudes would have to change.

For instance, an organisation restructuring that I previously managed involved having to remove silos and slabs, and merge departments into a few business domains so that the organisation becomes lean, agile and be more responsive to swift market changes and customers’ needs.

To move away from an organisation that is highly hierarchical and multi-departments, we had an in-house customised “Corporate Values Booster” programme for all employees, including the senior leaders. Based on the new business domains, the senior leaders stated the intent for the new organisation restructuring and how it benefits the individuals, teams and organisation.

The senior leaders then acknowledged the concerns and feelings of people who were affected, while the Organisation Development Team facilitated a safe, open and interactive environment where the employees got to share their feelings about the change, whether they be positive, neutral or negative.

There was also an airspace for individuals to explain why such feelings emerged. As leaders and HR change champions, we must understand that the individuals’ feelings and perceptions on the impact and benefits of the change are subjective in reality.

Due to the individual’s subjective worldview of “What’s in for me?”, “What will I gain?”, and “What will I lose?”, we should also respect their negative feelings.  Once you listen to their feelings objectively with a non-judgmental mind and an empathetic heart, you will be able to step into their subjective reality and identify the reasons to why they are wary, dislike or resist the changes, rather than labelling them as difficult and stubborn people who resist change.

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