Why do employees resist organizational change?

In the twenty-first century, organizations are dealing with a high level of competition as well as ambiguity caused by several factors that are technological, economic, social or of some other kind in nature. Amid very high levels of volatility and ambiguity, companies need to respond swiftly to ongoing environmental changes. Some of these changes in the industry environment may make it necessary for organizations to bring internal changes to their cultures, work processes and policies. However, bringing about these changes organization-wide is not as simple since they may require people throughout the organization to significantly alter their work styles. Sometimes the uncertainty surrounding an impending change may also cause frustration and give rise to rumors which may result in loss of employee support for the change. While leaders can bring system-wide changes successfully if they mind certain factors, knowing the factors that can cause fear and resistance from employees will help them deal with the situation better and bring about organizational change without much difficulty. Every year a lot of such efforts by organizations to bring about a change fail because of employee resistance and even if they are successfully imposed the effects do not last for long. 

Why employees resist organizational change

Employees’ reactions to change can take several forms from active resistance to enthusiastic support. The most negative reaction to a proposed change is active resistance where employees resist a change actively by boycotting it and rejecting the proposed change with vigor. Passive resistance is milder than active resistance and while employees might feel frustrated by the proposed change, they will not talk about it or tell anyone. Sometimes employees even start looking for a new job without even telling the decision-makers. Another type of employee reaction is compliance where employees comply with the proposed change and without any willingness. At the positive end of the spectrum is enthusiastic support where employees do not just like the proposed change and abide by it but also encourage others to follow. It is important for managers to know what factors can cause employees to resist a proposed change so that they can devise ways to overcome resistance and gain buy-in. Some of the most common causes behind resistance to change are listed below.

Disrupted Habits:

In a  large number of cases, employees resist change because it disrupts their habits. While working at an organization, employees cultivate certain work habits and love to work the way they are habituated to. However, if a proposed change tries to break these habits and replace them with new ones, it gives rise to resistance. Habits can make the situation difficult even if the proposed change is small and will not bring any significant alterations in how people have been working. However, it can still give rise to doubts in employees’ minds regarding their efforts and the results as well as the leaders’ objectives behind that change.  At other times, employees may be required to reconfigure their work style to suit the new demands. A new work process may impose an additional demand or add a simple new task to their daily job making employees feel like they would have to entirely readjust their work habits and then lead to resistance. Employees may find it difficult to break out of their comfort zones and resist change. 

Personality:

Personality can also be a source of resistance to change and depending upon their personality traits the level of resistance can vary from person to person inside an organization. Employee morale and self esteem also affect how people react to change. HIgher self esteem helps people cope with situations easily and such people resist less to change. They find it easier to cope with change since higher self esteem makes them believe that their chances of adjusting well and being successful with the proposed change are higher. Such people are more optimistic about change and tend to adjust better than others whereas lower self esteem makes people think negatively of change and they find it difficult to adapt to changing situations. Lower self esteem makes them take every change as an overwhelming threat and on the other hand people with higher self esteem take it as an opportunity to shine and perform better than others. 

Uncertainty:

Change generally brings some ambiguity and uncertainty with itself. In most cases when a major change is underway, people are uncertain of what is going to happen to their positions or how the proposed change will affect them. This uncertainty related to their futures also makes them resist change. Apart from change in job duties, eliminations are also likely and people may tend to resist any change that is likely to affect them negatively. The real outcome can be better or worse than their imagination. If the future situation is unclear it also makes people feel stressed and lose control which takes the form of active or passive resistance in various cases. 

Fear of failure:

In cases where people feel that their performance will be affected by the new system. Many times even the experts fear that they will not be able to retain their performance level under the new system. Research shows that the people who expect that their performance will be better under the new system show more commitment to the proposed change than the ones who fear it will be affected negatively. So, the level of commitment also varies from person to person depending upon how sure he is about his future under the new system.

Personal impact of change on individual employees:

People do not resist all forms of change but it depends on how the proposed change affects them personally. They welcome the change that favors them more at a personal level. Who does not like a promotion or a bigger and nicer office? If a change gives an employee more control over the others, he or she is more likely to welcome that form of change. Research also shows that if the proposed change does not affect individual jobs and job duties much, such change is welcomed.

Prevalence of change:

If an organization is used to constantly making short-lived changes then any next change is highly likely to meet stiff resistance. In another case, if attempts to bring about organization-wide changes have been unsuccessful previously, another such attempt will most likely face resistance. A history of unsuccessful changes is going to make the employees feel skeptical about new changes and will make them resist it. The scale of planned change also affects how much resistance it will likely produce. For example, a company is planning to introduce new software that will help employees accomplish tasks faster, then it will result in little to no resistance. In another case where a company is planning to introduce a major technological change that is going to fundamentally alter how tasks are carried out organization-wide on a daily basis requiring employees to change how they work, then the level of resistance will be higher. 

Perceived loss of power:

Another reason behind resistance to change is how it affects the power structure inside the organization. Suppose your organization had earlier handed over enormous power to the supervisors who could hire and fire employees at will and then decided to move to a more team-oriented structure where the team held more control than a single supervisor. The supervisors are required to play the roles of mentors and team leaders and instead of directing work and ordering people, they are required to support and guide them. They will no longer have the kind of control they enjoyed once and it makes them feel like their positions are weakened by the new changes which makes them resist the proposed change. The supervisors feel like their status has been reduced and they have lost the power and prestige they held earlier. So, even if the new team structure is more beneficial in terms of organizational productivity and performance, supervisors are more likely to resist the change since their importance is being diminished.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.