How to Help Employees Who Are Resistant to Change

Every company has them. Yes, even yours… Those employees who have so much talent and so much potential. But there’s one big thing holding them back. They’re resistant to change.

Perhaps they’ve been promoted and need to make the switch from colleague to boss.

Maybe their team’s taking on a new strategy and they’ve got to adjust to a new way of working.

Or, possibly, they’re struggling to adjust as the company pivots to a different direction.

As someone who’s responsible for the people in your organisation, how do you get around that? You need to help your company get the most out of its staff, whilst helping your employees get the most out of themselves.

So let’s look at some practical steps you can take. Here’s how to deal with your employees’ resistance to change.

6 strategies for overcoming resistance to change

If we turn back the clock a few decades to 1979, two Harvard professors – Kotter and Schlesinger – had just published a now famous article presenting a model for overcoming resistance to change.

They presented it as six strategies for overcoming resistance to change. Their paper emphasised the importance of understanding the variety of reactions that employees have to change. They suggest that each reaction requires a different strategy to overcome it.

Kotter and Schlesinger’s six strategy model has been around for over 40 years. Yet it still acts as a powerful foundation for our understanding of change management today.

Below, you’ll find a summary of the six strategies for overcoming resistance to change. I’ll then go on to explore a more modern day approach:

  1. Education and communication – Kotter and Schlesinger explain that people need to be educated about the change before it takes place. This is a great approach when the resistance to change is rooted in misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the change itself.
  2. Participation and involvement – this strategy gives people a sense of ownership and control over the change process. You don’t need to invite participation into every part of the change process, it could just be one small aspect.
  3. Facilitation and support – this strategy requires offering direct support to the people impacted by the change, so that they have the skills and tools to adjust to the new approach. This can be particularly helpful when the resistance to change stems from fear and anxiety.
  4. Negotiation and agreement – this involves offering a simple incentive to those impacted by the change. It could be an offer of compromise or a financial incentive such as a raise, promotion or bonus.
  5. Manipulation and co-option – this strategy has its drawbacks, as it could lead people to feel “tricked” into agreeing with the change (it’s not a strategy I tend to recommend!). But Kotter and Schlesinger present it as a viable change strategy nonetheless, suggesting that if you’re able to arrange events into a certain order or win over influential people who will get others on side, then change management becomes a much easier process.
  6. Explicit and implicit coercion – this is a simple (but potentially harsh) strategy of forcing change through. People are given the alternative to leave or be fired if they do not agree to the change. Again, it’s a risky strategy but one that is sometimes implemented when a strict deadline requires a change to be made.

A more modern way to help employees who are resistant to change

It’s no secret that a lot’s happened since Kotter and Schlesinger developed their six strategies back in the 1970s. So how can companies help employees who are resistant to change now?

These are my six strategies for overcoming resistance to change, designed for use in modern day businesses and created after working with over 100 coaching clients from countless companies. Each focuses on helping the individual employee to learn and grow in their career.

1. Start by developing awareness

Before an employee is able to change, they need to understand that there is a change to be made.

The individual needs to become more aware of themselves, their actions and their behaviours. It’s only then that they’re able to identify what can be done to help them maximise their potential.

Developing skills around perceptual positioning can be helpful when employees are struggling to communicate in a way that is received well by their colleagues.

Whilst using HR reviews to set goals in the area of change can be a useful way to track progress. If the change is continuously lacking, this can then open up an opportunity to present an alternative solution, such as executive coaching, to the employee.

2. Look for the root cause

If an employee is resistant to change, it might not be the change itself that they’re fearing. It could be something deeper.

When someone is struggling with fear, anxiety or self-confidence, they’re far more likely to take any potential criticism straight to heart. Rather than seeing a suggestion of change as constructive or supportive, they see it as a personal validation of the doubts they’ve been experiencing all along.

So try to reframe the solution and consider how you can help them grow their confidence instead. Rather than allowing them to feel picked on, look at how you can empower them.

3. Give them back control

A lot of fear surrounding change is actually fear of losing control. Rather than living the life they’re used to, your employee is now facing a life that feels unknown to them.

How can you give them back control?

This might mean inviting the employee to start a two-way conversation, where they’re able to offer suggestions and compromises that’ll make the change feel like their own.

Or, it could be a case of partnering with the employee as you support them to maximise both their personal and professional potential. This is a big part of the coaching process, with individuals being invited to share and set their own goals as well as the goal that has been set by the company. This gives them ownership of the process, empowering them to take back their autonomy.

4. Show the personal benefit of change

For employees to get on board with a change, it’s only natural that they’re going to need to see and understand the benefit for themselves.

Rather than presenting the change as a “cure” to fix a problem they might be having, try to present it as a path towards a more positive outcome.

For example, when employees are able to think about situations differently, are able to be more positive at work, can communicate more effectively and can lead teams wellthose changes benefit the employee just as much as they benefit the business. They increase their chances of a promotion, create a better work environment and boost their morale.

At the same time, when employees show up to work as their best selves, when they have a life-work balance that supports them and a company that values them, they become loyal employees that are more productive. They’re a lot happier too.

If your employees can see that your organisation is genuine in its support of them, they’re going to reciprocate their support in response. This is a phenomenon known as perceived organisational support, which creates a more positive environment for organisational change such as introducing new training practices (like coaching).

5. Demonstrate why this change is necessary for the company

“We’ve always done it this way, why change now?” The answer to that question is simple. Successful companies are never stagnant companies, and it’s important for your team to understand that.

Companies need to be able to move, grow and adapt to fast changing market environments, global economic conditions and ever evolving trends. Which means their employees need to be able to too.

By educating your employees on the importance and value of change, they’re far more likely to buy-in to that change as they start to see how it benefits them and the organisation they work for. Rather than seeing it as a personal attack, it becomes an organisational strategy.

6. Take them out of the spotlight

The worst thing is for any employee to think that they are being singled out. We don’t want them to feel like they’re the only person being asked to make a change. Instead, make it clear that this isn’t personal and show them the respect they deserve.

If you’re getting external help and inviting a partner in to deliver training, clearly show that it’s company wide and that all leaders, executives and so on are getting help in this area.

Ideally, your senior leadership team should be open about the work they are undertaking to continue their professional development, helping to facilitate an open environment where continuous learning is celebrated.

What if you could help your employees change in the right direction?


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About the author

Lisa is a mother, a business owner, a founder, and an executive leader. She's been through it all and has come out the other side to thrive. Now she's helping you to do the same! Learn how you can find clarity and support through her services for individuals and organisations.