What Leaders Should Know

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We’ve all encountered a change in our lives at one point or another. It may take many forms, from something as minor as waking up in a different time all the way to uprooting your family to pursue a job opportunity all the way throughout the country. For change to be successful, you have to accept it and be comfortable with it, regardless of its intensity. 1 environment where many people will experience change is at work. Business leaders are tasked with ensuring that the company’s operations under their purview are run efficiently and effectively. This may sometimes require a change to how a group, or the whole organization, currently operates after identifying a problem. Whether you are a leader or a subordinate, the capacity to deal with change and implement change is critically important to an organization’s overall success.

If change is so necessary, why do people resist it? Vast portions of the current business research literature are devoted to determining how firms mitigate risk and why these techniques work. The same holds true for people; they resist change because it represents risk and uncertainty. In a 2011 paper, Myungweon Choi discovered that readiness for change, commitment to change, openness to change, and cynicism of change are all factors that affect an individual’s ability to deal with change.

How can we identify if individuals in an organization are prone to resist change? Leaders can survey their employees, several inventories exist to give organizations an idea of whether a person is prone to withstand change, including a tool created by Shaul Oreg in 2003 as well as validated instruments built for the Technology Adoption Model (TAM), and the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT). Leaders should also be able to identify people that may resist change from personal knowledge about the workers they work with. Leaders should also keep in mind that the idea of resistance by itself should not be construed as a marker against an individual, after all it’s a perfectly natural reaction. What leaders do need to be careful of, however, is letting that resistance take hold among a team.

The Significance of Followers

Burak Oc and Michael Bashur discovered that followers with higher personal power exert greater societal influence on leaders, followers who are psychologically more direct to their leaders exert greater social influence on them, and large groups will have more influence on leaders as a function of the within-group agreement. This is to say followers have just as big a part in successfully enacting change, if not bigger than the leaders trying to achieve that. David Courpasson and colleagues studied this extensively in a paper titled Resisters at work: Generating productive resistance in the workplace. In this paper, it was found that resistors can affect top management, and gain concessions, through active attempts. These efforts culminated in senior leadership having little choice but to give in to the resistance as the resisters managed to form new classes possessing enough power that forced the leadership’s hand.

Uhl-Bien and colleagues have investigated the concept of co-producing leadership, where followers still defer to a leader but with advising, challenging, or persuading behaviours that ultimately generate more effective outcomes. One key aspect of co-production of leadership is communicating. Research shows that leaders who communicate to their followers that they have faith in their employees’ abilities lead to a rise in the follower’s ability to meet these expectations through an increase in their sense of competence and self-efficacy. Leveraging this can help leaders create successful change.

Kotter, in his 1996 book Leading Change, lays out an eight-stage sequential process to ensure successful change in an organization:
(1) Establish a sense of urgency;
(2) create a guiding coalition;
(3) create a vision and strategy;
(4) communicate the change vision;
(5) empower employees for broad-based action;
(6) Create short-term yields;
(7) consolidate gains and produce more change; and
(8) anchor new approaches in the culture.

Jeffrey Ford and his colleagues also noted in their 2008 research paper regarding change immunity that several management practices that have been documented to decrease resistance, including communicating extensively, encouraging people to participate, providing people with needed resources and developing strong working relationships. Somebody’s immunity can be exacerbated through supervisors who break agreements, oversee a breakdown in communication, and by dismissing resistance itself.

Communicating the purpose of the change is essential but describing how the change will affect the employee is important as well. Bear in mind, change scares people because it involves risk and uncertainty. By demonstrating to employees that the change efforts you’re proposing will have a positive effect on them, they’ll be less prone to resist the change. By including these workers early on in the process, by listening and responding to their concerns, and by integrating suggestions they may supply you engage these individuals and make them a part of the change procedure. By being part of the solution, they are much less likely to withstand the proposed change.

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