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Managing Employee Resistance to Change and Innovation in Organizations

The Human Context of Employee Resistance

"Resistance has its costs (certainly, it is not free!)"

Many organizations aren’t half as innovative as their senior management team wants them to be or as their marketing departments suggest they are.  The introduction of innovation and change in many organizations is often met with predictable employee resistance.  Therefore it is critical to consider that the foundation for most employee resistance is rooted in a human context (there is also a realization that resistance has its financial roots!). 

Here are two points to consider as part of the “human context” in employee resistance:

  • the power of an employee's “comfort” level in today's organizations needs to be considered more seriously,
  • the natural and physiological reaction to change is both passive and active.

Since the early 2000s, resistance has been identified as a top obstacle to change (including innovative change) in all of "best practices" benchmarking studies.  Therefore, it is critical for transitioning organizations to shift behaviours and attitudes in people to embrace new ways of doing business and enhancing change and innovation activities.

Begin with the end in mind

What benefit does a new innovative process deliver if no one follows it?  What benefit does a new technology or system create if no one uses it?  Implementing a technical solution is only part of the equation.  

Ensuring that employees embrace, adopt and proficiently use the technical solution is really where benefit realization occurs.  The intended results and outcomes of change are inextricably connected to whether that change becomes part of how employees do their jobs -- which means that the Return on Investment of a project or initiative is directly related to how well the people side of innovative change is managed.  

This relationship is further confirmed by correlation analysis showing that more effective change management increases the likelihood of meeting project objectives.

I recently came across this brief commentary from Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre that might add some insights into change and organizational initiatives.  Please read it over before you move to other material in this Module.

Resistance is Futile: Making Change Simply Irresistible

Have you ever woken up in the morning with a brilliant idea, one that solves a problem that’s preoccupied you for months? Perhaps you can’t quite believe the elegance of the solution, and you decide to sleep on it for one more night. The next morning, excited, convinced that your answer is sound, you go to the office, round up your team, and share your inspiration. Before humbly taking your bow amid their applause, you glance up at your colleagues. They are staring at you, in profound silence, all wearing the blankest of blank looks.

The Importance of Employee Adoption

What you are now looking at despairingly is the face of resistance. You can recognize it when nothing happens. Its effect is to hobble change.

For many of us, our first reaction would be to argue, convince, debate, try to bring people around to our way of thinking—or even to get annoyed, frustrated, and defensive. If we at the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre had a dollar for every time we heard a leader tell resisters to get on board the train or be left at the station, we would be rich. But forcing resisters to change is the least effective way for gaining commitment. Prescribing and commanding does not make people more willing to act. It usually makes them dig in their heels deeper.

So how do you look resistance straight in the eye and convince it to switch over to your side? Involving people in a meaningful way is the best way to entice people to change. Expect resistance, plan for it, and realize that you need to work with your stakeholders from the outset. The job of change leadership is to analyze key groups in the organization and their readiness to change, and to develop strategies to help build a critical mass of supporters.

Blurting out our great idea to the team and expecting people to be onside is simply not the way to overcome their resistance. It is like a husband coming home and telling his wife, “Guess what? I bought an amazing car today and you are just going to love it.” It is a given that with any decision, whether involving individuals or organizations, anyone who thinks they know best and doesn’t involve others who will be affected is most likely not going to meet with a positive response. People are not going to be with you—which is the basic definition of resistance.

So slow down. You have to build support, not expect it. Be methodical. Create a plan for mobilizing commitment. It makes sense to begin your planning process by considering the issues and needs of your stakeholders. If key groups are not honoured and involved along the way, resistance is almost inevitable. Ask yourself:

  • Who are the key groups with a stake in the change?
  • What are their interests in the change?
  • What issues will they have?
  • How are they likely to react to the change?
  • Is their buy-in required? If so, what type of involvement is appropriate? How might I secure it?
  • Who needs to be on board and how can I involve them so that they enrich the plan?

Next, think through how to initiate conversations amongst them to discuss them about the why, what, and how of change. Knowing why the organization needs to change, where the organization is going, how the organization is going to get there and how they can participate will overcome most people’s resistance. That’s because participation is the biggest factor in mobilizing commitment. By creating a forum to share, listen, and learn from one another, you will all gain valuable perspectives from key stakeholders and foster a common understanding that will support your change process. This is the key to replacing resistance with resolve, planning with results, and fear with excitement.

At this point, you would be well-prepared to share your brilliant new discovery with your team, involving them from the very start. Remember, change is different these days. In our complex work environments, the new leadership model is to inspire the answers, not to give them. Today no one leader can single-handedly have the whole answer, providing the vision, knowledge of the external environment, the best strategy and a plan to implement it. What’s important in managing change is creating commitment for where you are going and how, and ensuring that your key stakeholders enrich, as opposed to resist, your vision for change.

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