Overcoming Employee Resistance to Cultural Change

resistance to cultural change

We all live with habits and patterns of behavior, even if we’re not aware of it. From the moment we wake up – almost without thinking – we follow the same routines in the same sequence. 1. Start the coffee maker 2. Shower 3. Get dressed 4. Drink coffee, etc. We enjoy routines and habits because they give our lives a sense of control and stability. They make us feel safe and comfortable. If you’re still unsure, just stay somewhere that doesn’t accommodate your morning routines, and you’ll quickly see how stressful it can feel to be without them. It’s understandable that when our routines are threatened or changed suddenly, it can really shake us up. 

Growing pains happen 

Cultural changes at work can have the same effect. It can be tough to go through. There’s a great article in the Harvard Business Review called, Ten Reasons People Resist Change by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, where she explains that, “Change is resisted because it can hurt,” and “Although leaders can’t always make people feel comfortable with change, they can minimize discomfort.” 

How to reduce the push-back 

When cultural change needs to happen, leaders can soften the blow by doing the following: 

  • Give employees some sense of control. As noted in the Psychology Today blog called, How Much Control Do You Have In Your Life, by Dr. Diane Dreher, “One of our basic human needs is a sense of control, to know that we have a choice, that our actions make a difference.”  Leaders can help with this by having employees participate in the change process, so that employees feel involved in the decision-making instead of reacting to choices that are out of their control. 
  • Give some advance warning.  Try not to bombard employees with unexpected changes all at once. Let them know in advance that things are likely to change in certain areas.
  • Be organized and methodical about the changes.  If there’s any confusion or uncertainty in how it all roles out, employees will feel it and it will quickly threaten their sense of safety and trust in the organization. Show them that they can trust the change, by rolling it out in a planned and well thought-out way. 
  • Understand and support staff through the process. Employees might not even realize it until their routines are taken away, but routines build confidence.  When employees are doing the same things for a while, they know what they’re doing and it shows!  That feels good, it’s predictable and easy.  But when cultural changes result in a new way of doing things, employees can quickly feel clueless and lost. Plus, let’s face it, learning something new adds more work to their work life. That can lead to resentment, frustration, and apathy.  To avoid all of that, give healthy doses of understanding. Acknowledge that change takes time and frustration is normal. Also, give support through quality training and mentoring that gives employees the time to understand and learn at their own pace, so they can get their confidence back ASAP.
  • Reward behaviors that are in line with the new cultural change. The reason: Rewards will help to ensure that employees repeat the behavior again and again.  As Charles Duhigg says in his Big Think video called “Creatures of Habit,” the reward is actually the reason why the habit happens in the first place. It’s how your brain decides, “Should I remember this pattern for the future or not.” 

Nothing spectacular ever came easy 

Resistance to cultural change is to be expected because it adds to employees’ workloads and it forces them to learn something new, making them feel incompetent for a bit which can rattle their confidence. If, however, your organization is preparedrealistic and supportive about the effects of change on its employees, the rewards can outweigh the discomfort in a big way.  

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