Why People Aren't as Afraid of Change as You Think

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Managing Change in an Organization

Are people really afraid of change? Not in the way that many people think. Here's why.

"This is a new era of opportunity, but only for those who are willing to accept change as an opportunity, not for those who are afraid of it." Peter F. Drucker

Peter Drucker spoke of the need for organizations to become "change leaders." In today’s rapidly changing environment, he stressed that managers must be able to anticipate, plan and lead change efforts in their organizations.

Managers must also be able to create an organizational environment where change is seen as an opportunity, not a threat and resisted. Drucker also stated, "The organizations most likely to suffer the most are those with the delusion that tomorrow will be like yesterday."

This article provides insight from Drucker and deals specifically with why many change efforts are resisted or why some feel people are afraid of change.

Concepts from the field of Organization Development are also included to supplement Drucker’s views. For a more comprehensive discussion of managing complex organizational change including change strategies, tactics and the action research model please refer to the author’s book, The Strategic Drucker.

Sources of Resistance to Change 

Are people really afraid of change and why do they resist change? The title of this article focuses on why people are afraid of change, which isn't really accurate. Rather, those who will be impacted by the change effort may resist the change effort for numerous reasons. In actuality though, I prefer to state there is no such thing as just resistance to change but rather there is perceived loss or what people think they will lose as a result of the change effort or in some cases, actual loss.

Major sources of resistance to change include:

Source #1: Uncertainty about the causes and effects of the change

  • People avoid uncertainty (risk); established procedures are well known and predictable.
  • Lack of trust – Distrust of any changes instituted from above.
  • Need new skills – May need to learn new skills or information. Could have an initial negative impact on performance and impact rewards (compensation, promotion).
  • Negative performance – Change may be interpreted as not doing present job well.

Source #2: Unwillingness to give up existing benefits (perceived loss)

  • Unwillingness to give up tasks and relationships.
  • Loss of power, prestige, salary, quality of work and other benefits (security) 

Source #3: Awareness of a weakness in changes being proposed

  • Potential problems overlooked by initiators of the change ("We tried this before and it didn’t work.") 
  • Plan to introduce the change considered to be too complicated, costly and too time consuming. May also disrupt current operations.
  • Lack of credibility of the Change Leader - The Change Leader may not be respected by the organization or have credibility. Has this person been able to produce results before? What experience does the Change Leader have in previous change efforts?

Increasing Resistance to Change

All of these factors contributing to resistance or perceived loss will increase if:

  • Change threatening – Change is seen as threatening if not perceived as helpful.
  • Change not requested by impacted group – Change will be opposed by the impacted group unless they have specifically requested it.
  • Line management did not request change – Change will be opposed by management as a real or imaginary threat to their prestige and authority unless they have specifically requested the change.
  • Group opposition – Group opposition is usually more than the sum total of individual’s opposition (2 + 2 = 6).
  • Magnitude of the change – The greater the change, the greater the opposition by the impacted groups. 

These factors that increase resistance can be potentially reduced by communicating the benefits of the change and that there is also continuity with the change.

Also, the greater the prestige of the manager supporting the change effort, or that of the Change Leader, the greater influence he or she can exert for the change.

Providing information as to the seriousness of the situation now and the potential benefits in the future as a result of the change can substantially reduce this resistance. Involving members of the impacted groups in the planning process can also create internal pressure for the change as they will have ownership in the change effort and therefore be more committed to the change – selling the benefits of the change to their other group members.

"People are not stressed because there’s too much change in organizations, but because of the way change is made." Peter F. Drucker Management Challenges for the 21st Century.

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