When considering the many barriers to change efforts, a leader can become overwhelmed and easily frustrated. However, most of these barriers can be categorized into three areas, making them seem, perhaps, more manageable. These three categories include cognition, motivation, and obligations.
Cognition deals with the way people think. It is understandable that many people hold onto proven frameworks in their thinking. If a certain way of thinking has been acceptable for a person, their bosses, and their co-workers, then why should they re-vamp the way they make decisions or solve problems? This is a common response for someone who does not see the advantages and purpose of the change initiative. This barrier deals with the way people view reality. Usually, a person’s view of reality results from their previous experiences. For some, the range of experiences may be limited by their young age, their employment at only one company, their assignment in one job function, a small circle of friends, limited education, limited exposure to other cultures, etc. Regardless, these experiences remain the basis for all that they know. So, by asking someone to change the way they view the world, you are asking them to disregard everything they have previously experienced. However, the limitations of the way that some employees may see reality can cause serious issues for change initiatives. Simply put, employees with a limited view have a limited ability to consider alternative methods, procedures, and solutions.
With change comes the pain of loss – the loss of established procedures and methods of work. Additionally, there could be the loss of established social networks within the workplace as co-workers are physically moved to other locations. There could be the loss of power as one loses a significant number of direct reports or the ability to make certain decisions. There could be a loss of autonomy as someone is now paired with co-workers or expected to submit regular reports to a reviewing authority. Now, consider the fact that multiple changes are usually included in change initiatives. So, not only is an employee concerned, for example, about their loss of autonomy, but they are also concerned about the loss of a social network, the loss of power, or any other thing that they hold dear to them. So, employees can be strongly motivated to prevent this loss by preventing the change. Additionally, most employees are motivated to prevent the power struggles and other internal strife that usually accompany the change.
Obligations can provide a source of resistance as well. Employees may have a myriad of obligations, whether with colleagues, family, with group norms, etc. Changes in the work environment may provide additional work and stress for a colleague. Having an obligation, as a friend, to the colleagues’ general state of happiness may cause an employee to resist change. Whether the additional work or stress is actual or simply perceived by friends or colleagues can be irrelevant if the opinionated or agenda-led colleague mobilizes the support of co-workers with a self-initiated, negative campaign. Additionally, obligations to family can be strained by changes in work hours or changes in work locations.
Change management can be a chaotic process with many unknowns and unexpected reactions. These unexpected reactions can come in the form of employee resistance. With so many different reasons for resistance, it can be difficult to frame them in a manner that is understandable and manageable for the change leader. By offering these three categories (cognition, motivation, and obligations), the change leader can now organize these barriers into a clear framework, better preparing him/her to mitigate and react to these reactions to change.