Early one morning I was sitting in my office trying to find my way to the bottom of my first cup of coffee when in storms one of my team members whom we’ll call “Lulu.” Lulu was clearly agitated. She was seriously in a state. She stood in my office and went into a first-class tirade about pancakes and Styrofoam containers and the café on the first floor. After listening to her for a few minutes, I was able to ascertain that the café had changed their serving containers from the classic, tried and true Styrofoam “clam shells” to a more environmentally friendly, waxed cardboard version. According to Lulu, these new containers were in no way suitable for pancakes and syrup and there was no need to change and she wasn’t happy. After all, the new containers could leak and the tops didn’t close well enough to suit her.
“I really wanted pancakes this morning and now I can’t have them!” She literally shrieked at me.
“What would you do?”
“Well,” I replied, “I believe I’d eat pancakes.”
That did nothing to defuse her outrage and so, after another couple of minutes of her carrying on, I finally said, “this reaction seems a bit extreme over a food container. Is there anything else bothering you?"
She just blustered and accused me of not understanding and then stormed out much the same way she stormed in.
I thought to myself, “This is not about pancakes. What the heck is going on here?”
Obviously Lulu didn’t like the change. That much I got. But so much fuss over a food container? Though it was clear she was upset about the pancakes, it was less clear why – and why such an extreme reaction to something that, to me, seemed trivial. Something else was going on!
It actually didn’t take me long to figure it out. Lulu was reacting to months of significant change in the workplace. She had a new boss (me) who set new expectations. She and the rest of the team had been moved to another floor. There was a new head of the training committee and there were new programs being planned. The days of basically running around unsupervised while the firm conducted a search for their new boss had come to an end and the team didn’t know what to expect.
This was a classic “resistance to change” scenario and my first big challenge as leader of the team. I quickly learned that Lulu was an individual naturally resistant to change and the food container switch was the last straw - just one more thing that upset her routine, and she wasn’t having any part of it. She felt that things were out of control!
So why so much resistance? Some people just naturally resist change for any number of reasons. They may feel a sense of loss and even sadness with change or just don’t know what’s happening, which leaves them feeling disconnected. Perhaps they don’t understand (or agree with) the underlying business reason for the change, they fear lay-offs, they’re comfortable, or they just plain like things the way they are. People often feel they have no control over the situation, and that can be extremely anxiety-inducing and frightening.
Change can be physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful which, in turn, can create more stress and overload for everyone. A simple Google search, “Why do people resist change?” will turn up more than 20 million results in less than .01 seconds! It’s very real and can have very real, and potentially negative, consequences.
So what does resistance to change look like?
Resistance to change can manifest itself in many ways. Some individuals are very open about their anxiety and will loudly and forcefully challenge the change. You’ll hear things like, “we’ve never done it this way before,” and “why do we have to do that?” Others will be less overt about their reactions. Their resistance may show itself in more passive ways such as missing meetings, calling in sick, or not completing assigned tasks. Some people will focus their nervous energy on some seemingly trivial thing that they feel they can control, you know – like pancakes. Still others may exhibit more obvious signs of stress such as becoming argumentative or displaying bouts of temper. And then there are those who decide early on that they have no “stomach” for either large or small-scale organizational change so they leave to work elsewhere.
No matter what the reason, resistance to change can jeopardize new initiatives, result in less productivity and even create conflict. The challenge is not just in recognizing and identifying an individual’s level of resistance to change, the challenge is knowing how to mitigate the resistance and generate forward movement – or, at the very least, compliance.
Remember, it’s not about the pancakes.
“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the others find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer, Social Philosopher and Author