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Overcoming Resistance to Change - 15 March 2012

Imagine this scenario. Paul and Jane are arguing over whether or not people should wear seatbelts. Paul says yes. Jane, though, claims you shouldn’t wear them because she heard of an accident in which a car fell into a lake. As the car sank below the water, the driver couldn’t get out in time due to the fastened seatbelt. She also tells another story of a similar accident, one in which a passenger was unable to flee a burning car quickly enough, again because the seatbelt was done up. As a result, Jane thinks the risk of wearing a seatbelt is far greater than not wearing one.

You probably think Jane is totally irrational – of course seatbelts save more lives than they take. But, when that actual scenario was put to students in a famous study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, the results were very different. Even though Jane’s stories were anecdotal, many of the students concluded that, yes, seatbelts were just as likely to kill people as they were to save them.

Jane and the students were led to an illogical conclusion because of something called the neglect of probability bias. It occurs when people’s decision-making abilities are damaged by their activated emotions. For many of us, when a worst-case scenario enters our mind, we ignore the improbability of its potential occurrence and choose instead to panic, complain, or make irrational decisions over situations that have no real chance of ever happening.

We see this in the workplace all the time. As soon as a new change initiative is announced, employees’ emotions are triggered. Their emotions are triggered for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’ve been burnt by bad implementation in the past. Or perhaps they fear they’re going to lose something as a result of the change. Or maybe they’ve been influenced by negative stories told by disgruntled colleagues. Or they could just be fatigued by too much change already imposed upon them.

The reasons aren’t really relevant. What matters is that when their emotions kick in, so too does their neglect of probability bias. This means they disregard the fact there's a low chance of their worst-case scenarios occurring, and instead they worry over what might happen – even when the chances of that happening are tiny. That’s when resistance to change firmly sets in.

The question becomes, how do you overcome it? One thing’s for sure: it’s very difficult to overcome it by using reason. Too often, managers resort to logic and explanation to get employees to embrace change. Without doubt, that’s a key part of change management, but it’s rarely strong enough to counteract powerful emotions.

The antidote is relationships. Managers frequently underestimate how much sway their relationships have on the degree to which employees are receptive to change. When a trusting relationship exists, employees are more willing to listen and they’re more open to negotiation. They’re also more discerning about the baggage they carry from their past experiences, and they’re careful about what they take on board from loud colleagues.

To build meaningful relationships with employees, especially during change:

- Seek their opinions and feedback in advance about decisions that impact them
- Get to know them personally, so that you understand their fears and resistance
- Communicate openly and honestly because voids are filled with drama
- Be there and be present, both of which are very different things
- Involve them in the implementation of the change
- Get positive employees to be spokespeople
- Tell your own stories so that your team has an alternative point of view
- Acknowledge and thank those who overcome any initial resistance

And keep your seatbelt on.


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