Resistance To Change In Organizations Comes From These 5 Factors

Leadership IQ studied more than 79,000 employees and leaders, and discovered that employees’ resistance to change management efforts comes from these 5 factors...

Every organization and leader experiences resistance to change. But as frustrating a problem as it may be, it can be overcome IF you understand the 5 major factors that drive resistance to change. Based on four Leadership IQ studies, involving more than 79,000 employees and leaders, this report will show you the underlying causes of resistance to change, and how your change management efforts can overcome them to achieve both minor and major change. Key findings from the study include:

  • Only 15% of employees always understand the rationale behind their leaders' strategy
  • 24% of an employee’s belief that the company needs to change is driven by whether they understand the rationale behind those changes
  • 23% of an employee’s belief that the company needs to change is driven by their confidence is their personal ability to succeed in your change management initiatives
  • Only 28% of respondents say that they like taking risks
  • Only 15% of employees believe that their organization always openly shares the challenges facing it
  • Only 22% of frontline employees like to leave their comfort zone

This report was developed using four different studies. In STUDY #1, Leadership IQ surveyed 31,664 employees and leaders. STUDY #1 respondents represented the following demographics: POSITION: Executives (11%), Middle Managers (41%), Frontline Employees (48%). In STUDY #2, Leadership IQ surveyed 27,048 executives, managers and employees from January-June, 2017. STUDY #2 respondents represented the following demographics: COMPANY SIZE [EMPLOYEES]: 1-499 employees (40.0%), 500-4,999 employees (30.8%), 5,000+ employees (29.2%). In STUDY #3, 7,745 people took an online test called ""What's Your Style Of Change Management?" STUDY #3 respondents represented the following demographics: GENDER: Female (48%), Male (52%). In STUDY #4, 12,801 people took an online test called "Do You Set SMART Goals Or HARD Goals?" STUDY #4 respondents represented the following demographics: GENDER: Female (54%), Male (46%)-- COMPANY SIZE [EMPLOYEES]: 1-9 (5%), 10-50 (9%), 51-100 (13%), 101-500 (21%), 501-2,000 (17%), 2,001-5,000 (9%), 5,001-10,000 (7%), 10,000+ (19%).

video breakdown of the study

FINDING #1: RESISTANCE TO CHANGE COMES BECAUSE only 15% of Employees Understand the Rationale Behind Leaders’ Strategy

It makes sense to think that the more an employee understands the rationale behind our strategy, business decisions and change efforts, the more likely they'll be to support our change management efforts and less likely to experience change resistance. In Study #1, Leadership IQ asked 31,664 employees and leaders whether they understand the rationale behind their organization's strategy (e.g. economic, marketplace, competitive factors, etc.). Sadly, a paltry 15% Always understand the rationale behind their organization's strategy (e.g. economic, marketplace, competitive factors, etc.). This will be a major obstacle for achieving successful change.

As you can see, there are more people who Never or Rarely understand the rationale behind their organization's strategy than there are those who Always or Frequently do. If people don't understand why they need to change, they won't change. After all, if an organization seems to be plugging along, doing reasonably well, why would it need to make a seemingly sudden shift to something else (aka organizational change)? That would seem to be unwarranted at best, and destructive at worst. Not only is a change effort in that context likely to incur significant resistance from employees, it's also likely to damage executives' reputations severely. If a change effort, or radical shift in strategy, seems capricious or poorly thought-out, the leaders behind those changes are going to be tainted.

In this same study, Leadership IQ conducted a regression analysis between the following two questions: "I believe that this organization needs to change in order to remain successful" AND "I understand the rationale behind this organization's strategy (e.g. economic, marketplace, competitive factors, etc.)."

When we plotted these questions, we discovered a significant positive relationship. In essence, 24% of an employee's belief that the company needs to change is driven by whether they understand the rationale behind the change process (R-Squared: 0.240666, p-value: < 0.0001).

If you're seeing significant resistance to change from your employees, it could be because they don't understand the rationale behind your change initiative. But the more they DO understand the rationale behind your decision and the proposed change, the less resistance to change (whether covert resistance or overt resistance) you're going to experience.

FINDING #2: RESISTANCE TO CHANGE COMES BECAUSE Employees Doubt They Can Be Successful In This Change Effort

It makes sense to think that the more confident employees feel about their ability to successfully navigate your change management efforts, the less resistance to change you'll see. Using the same study as Finding #1, Leadership IQ asked 31,664 employees and leaders the following 2 questions: "I believe that this organization needs to change in order to remain successful" AND "I am confident that I will personally be successful with the organizational change currently underway at this organization."

When we plotted these questions, we again discovered a significant positive relationship. In essence, 23% of an employee's belief that the company needs to change is driven by their confidence in their personal ability to succeed in your change management initiatives (R-Squared: 0.227627, p-value: < 0.0001).

If you're seeing significant resistance to change from your employees, it could from a lack of confidence on their part. And a lack of confidence often comes from insufficient training, support, learning opportunities and psychological safety. If your scores on these questions are particularly low, you could expect even more overt resistance to your organizational change effort. Overcoming resistance from this issue will obviously take some time and effort, but it is eminently achievable.

FINDING #3: RESISTANCE TO CHANGE COMES BECAUSE Leaders Don’t Share The Challenges Facing The Organization

When employees understand the challenges facing the organization, they're going to be more inclined to support a change process to address those challenges. In the data from Study #2, Leadership IQ surveyed 27,048 senior leaders, middle manager and frontline employees and found that only 15% of employees believe that their organization Always openly shares the challenges facing it.

It's going to be difficult to overcome change resistance when employees don't understand the root cause challenges that precipitated the change initiative. And not only does this impact resistance to change, it also impacts how employees feel about working at the company. This study discovered that 63% of employees who think their organization Always openly shares the challenges facing it will strongly recommend it as a great organization to work for. By contrast, only 6% of employees who think their organization Never openly shares the challenges facing it will strongly recommend it as a great organization to work for. In other words, if an employee believes their company openly shares the challenges facing it, they're about 10 times more likely to recommend it as a great employer (a key measure of employee engagement). So managing resistance not only decreases employee resistance to change and a possible negative emotional reaction from frontline employees, it also increases employee engagement.

FINDING #4: RESISTANCE TO CHANGE COMES BECAUSE Employees Don’t Love Taking Risks

One of the questions on our online test "What's Your Style Of Change Management?" asks respondents to choose between these 3 options: "I like taking risks" OR "I would take a risk if it seemed prudent" OR "I avoid risks." Overall, about 28% of respondents say that they like taking risks. If your company is going through a change management initiative that seems risky, you're likely to hit resistance to change if only 28% of people like taking risks.

However, we discovered big differences in how people viewed change when we dissected the data by position. For instance, 40% of top executives like taking risks. But for frontline employees, that number is only 24%. So in the average company, the CEO is 66% more likely to enjoy taking risks than the employees. (This will hold true generally for any senior members of the organizational leadership).

There are several lessons here: First, if your change management initiative seems risky, especially in the eyes of employees, you're probably going to incur resistance to change. You might look at the riskiness and think 'wow, this idea is really cool; finally some excitement!' or even 'This technological change will put us at the top of our industry.' But given what the above data shows, it's quite likely that your employees don't view the riskiness quite so favorably. Typically senior leaders and even the middle manager serve as the change agent for organisational change. And it's absolutely critical to remember that a change leader is definitionally going to embrace riskiness more than someone who prizes and enjoys the status quo.

Second, if you're the executive who's initiating this change management program, you probably have a very different assessment of what constitutes 'risk' than your employees. To you, this change might seem like the easiest thing ever. But are your employees going to see it that way? A great many of your employees will experience individual resistance to your change plan, not because your change management team did something wrong or because the change management process was predicated on a bad idea, but rather because their personalities prize security over adventure. [Check out the test What Motivates You? for more detail on individual personalities].

FINDING #5: RESISTANCE TO CHANGE COMES BECAUSE TOP EXECUTIVES ARE 91% MORE LIKELY TO ENJOY LEAVING THEIR COMFORT ZONE

Change management efforts require that people leave their comfort zones (otherwise it wouldn't be a change, it would just be the normal daily routine). And comfort zones are, by definition, comfortable. So it would make sense that the less someone likes to leave their comfort zone, the more likely they are to evidence resistance to change.

The 12,801 people who took the test in Study #4 were asked to choose between the statements, "I don't like to leave my comfort zone," OR, "I will leave my comfort zone on occasion," OR, "I like to leave my comfort zone." And as you can see in the chart below, top executives are 91% more likely to enjoy leaving their comfort zone. As you might imagine, a small percentage of people (27%) like to leave their comfort zone. But the real change management challenge appears when we break-out the data by position:

As you can see, frontline employees generally do NOT like to leave their comfort zone (22%). But top executives DO like to leave their comfort zone (42%). And that creates a palpable tension in many organizations. If executives like to leave their comfort zone, they're going to push for changes that are big and bold. And that's going to create even more resistance to change on the part of their employees. An effective change management process will recognize that whether the change is new technology, social change, or a reshuffling of the organizational structure, many stakeholders simply enjoy the status quo and don't like leaving their comfort zone. Resistance management (aka overcoming organizational resistance to change) is going to require acknowledging that many people have a negative emotional reaction to anything risky, and that includes change.

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