Photo: David Croxford

Dealing with Resistance to Change

An excerpt from Robbie Alm’s new book, The Faith of Leadership, in which he explores one of the biggest challenges faced by leaders: Leading in times of change.

January, 2015

15 Jan Alm

The Faith of Leadership: Insights from Hawaii’s Leaders
Watermark Publishing

Excerpt from the Book’s Introduction

This is not a cookbook on leadership; there really is no such thing. There are no proven recipes that will tell you what specific steps to take, with what ingredients, in what amounts, with a predictable result of great leadership.

But I do discuss eight aspects of leadership that have come up over and over again in my career and in my observations of great leaders. They are:
• Listening
• Humility
• Working with resistance to change
• Remembering whose change we are talking about
• Walking the talk and integrity
• Making certain that we always hear independent voices
• Understanding how others see the world
• The faith that underlies leadership


Chapter 3: Resistance to Change

(This excerpt has been condensed)

Being a great leader is never going to be easy.

Having said that, there are often significant periods when most things go pretty well, and the problems and challenges are reasonable. At times like that, the attributes associated with good management are important.

The need for particularly great leadership emerges when significant change is required. Leading in times of change is one of the most difficult activities leaders will ever face.

Why Do People Resist Change?

It’s logical to begin with the question, why do people resist change? Or looked at another way, if change is essential and good for an organization, why do we struggle so much with it?

For over a decade, in a class I co-teach at the University of Hawaii, we spend one full night on change resistance. Every year, I go up to the black (or sometimes white) board and write: “Why do people resist change?” Over the years I’ve gotten responses such as these:

No understanding of why the change is being made
Status quo is a “right” – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Lack of respect for current work
More work, at least short-term
Fear of adversity or conflict in new environment
Fear of “process” unknowns
Fear of failure
Fear of making mistakes
No self-interest in change
No incentive for change
Powerlessness, helplessness
Lack of involvement in change
Loss of identity
The loss of the “good old days”
Loss of stature
Loss of job
Fear of adversity
Change fatigue
Fear of the unknown
Taking folks out of their comfort zone
Lack of stability

At the end, I ask the class to tell me what all those have in common. After some silence, someone usually finds a way to the key observation that all of these are about the person who is going through the change, not about the person leading the change. In other words, it’s primarily about them and not about you.

Human beings generally like routine and predictability. Change throws them off, and they don’t like it.

So It’s Not Personal?

Having just said that it is about those undergoing the change, the reality is that it will likely still become personal to you. When people suffer discomfort, they will often look for someone to blame, and it will most likely be you.

One key to handling change resistance is to remember that basic resistance comes from human nature, and therefore don’t overreact to that personalization.

It may not be comfortable to see your picture on a dartboard or to hear people say “(expletive deleted) Robbie.” However, if you can avoid getting too angry or hurt, and simply be patient and understand what is occurring inside your team, you will be far better off.

While working at a bank, I led a move from manual to automated processing. A lot of changes were made in processing, forms, job content, etc. Coincidentally, just after its implementation, we had a regular survey of employees, and the consensus was “bring back the old guy” (my predecessor) and “get rid of the new guy” (me!). I wasn’t surprised and did not react; I assumed it was part of the process. And it passed without my doing any long-term harm to relationships by getting angry or defensive.

Reducing the Pain of Change

Once you understand the challenge of resistance to change, and where it springs from, there’s a lot more you can do beyond just not being defensive when you are attacked.

To make change less difficult and emotional, take the list above and see how many of those items can be addressed in advance. To the extent you can, it is your duty as a leader to reduce the pain that goes with change. Let me repeat that, it is your obligation to reduce the anxiety that goes with change. Failure to do so is a failure by you as a leader.

Let’s look at all the reasons on that list and what might be done to address them.

No Understanding of Why the Change is Being Made

Soon after I joined the bank, I was put on a Change Management Committee. The bank was going through such dramatic changes in the 1990s that the CEO wanted a group of employees at various levels to help keep an eye on what was happening.

One change involved absorbing a well-run savings and loan company that was a subsidiary of the bank. The savings and loan company was led by a hard-charging brilliant woman supported by a very high-morale, service-oriented team. Needless to say, they were not at all happy about the merger and the loss of their separate identity.

One of their major complaints to us was that no one had ever told them why they were being merged. When we passed that on to the bank’s senior managers, their reaction was, “It’s obvious why we’re doing this.”

It may have been obvious to them but it was not obvious to the savings and loan employees. We urged that senior management talk to them and they did.

That conversation did not solve or make okay their sadness at the loss of their separate identity as a company. But it did help with the serious morale issue of being impacted for what appeared to them to be no reason at all.

The question of why a change is being made should always be discussed early, openly and factually. This is true even if the reasons for change are very clear. People who are about to undergo major chance want to hear the “why” directly from their leaders.

Status Quo Is a “Right,” “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It,” Lack of Respect for Current Work

If things aren’t working well or are seriously broken, the reasons for change are often fairly obvious. There’s not always agreement on what should be done, but there is usually agreement that something needs to be done.

What happens when it is less clear that something is wrong and needs to be changed?

Part of the answer is that things don’t always have to be broken in order for change to be required. Sometimes the surrounding environment changes and so what we’re doing needs to change as a result.

When I first joined the electric utility, we were at the center of the debate in a residential community on a controversial project to replace a transmission line with a larger line. That community is home to many powerful and influential people, and they mounted strong opposition. It was a public and hard-fought battle, and the utility was clearly losing the battle of public opinion.

For many employees of the utility, it was hard to be so unpopular and to feel vilified at public meetings, since from their point of view they were doing their jobs as they had been taught, and in absolute compliance with the engineering, accounting and regulatory requirements.

I needed to make a speech to engineers and others working on the project, all of whom felt aggrieved. I began by telling them that they were absolutely right. By their training and the parameters given to them from a policy standpoint, the project was the right one. From an engineering standpoint, rather than create a new path and clear new land or disrupt too many roads, they planned to make an existing transmission line bigger, and therefore enlarge the towers and the footings to handle the bigger wire. The project itself would have dramatically increased the strength and reliability of the island grid. And by using an existing path and infrastructure, it was the least costly to the ratepayers, which along with increased reliability was the key to regulatory approval of the project.

I assured them that from every parameter they were assigned to meet – engineering, system operations and cost – it was the right project. So why were they being yelled at? Why were they being accused of poor professional work? Why were they the villains?

I told them the answer lay not in what they had been taught or done, it lay in the changed environment in which they were working. There had been a time in the utility’s history, in the history of most utilities, when the public’s reaction to a project ran along the lines of: “It’s their business and they know what they’re doing, so even if I don’t really like that particular project, they are delivering an essential commodity and we need to let them do it.”

Those days are gone, not only for utilities, but for government, business, labor and everyone else. The public’s trust in institutions has declined for decades.

On top of which, the grounds for decision-making – system efficiency, best engineering and lowest regulatory cost – have now been modified to include historic and cultural concerns, people’s view planes, cumulative development impacts in an area and on and on.

My overall message was simple: You were not poorly trained and did not perform poorly,  the world changed, and we have to change with the world. Not an easy answer but an accurate one.

Fast-forward a couple of years. We had another transmission line replacement project in an area that prided itself on its rural environment. Their favorite bumper sticker is “Keep The Country Country.” Following normal protocols, the replacement poles would be fewer, bigger and made of steel. The alternative was more wood poles and much thicker poles. Having learned something, the utility went to the community and laid out the alternatives. The response was immediate and unanimous – wood poles. Either pole worked for the company and by going with the community’s wishes, the project moved swiftly and without objection from the community. By the way, they were right. If you drive through that community today, the wood poles disappear into the heavy green foliage that surrounds them.

Fast-forward another couple of years and we have a problem on another coastline. Here wood poles in high-wind conditions had gone down twice in two years, blocking access in and out of a number of coastal communities.

Again, the company showed the community the options and because it is a rural community, we assumed they would similarly opt for wood poles. There was silence and then an older gentleman at the back of the room called out, “Which poles don’t go down in the winds.” The answer was that in all but the most extreme conditions, steel poles. He then said, “Okay, steel poles then,” to great applause from the room.

At that point, I felt compelled to speak. “We do need to tell you that the state Department of Transportation does not like steel poles in situations like this coastline where the poles are close to the road. The problem with steel poles is they convert fender benders into potential fatalities. If a car leaves the highway and hits a wood pole, the pole will often go down and the car survives the crash. In the case of steel, it does not give, and serious injuries and fatalities can result.”

After another period of silence, another old-timer says, “If they’re stupid enough to drink, or drive too fast and leave the road, that’s their problem. Steel poles!” to overwhelming applause.

Today on that stretch of rural road you will find steel poles, which the community views as its own call.

More Work, At Least Short-Term

There’s no question that most changes will cause more work, at least in the short-term. Even if, in the end, those changes will save time and energy, the short-term result is nearly always a transition time in which there is more work and not everything goes smoothly.

In all discussions and descriptions of the change and the change process, it makes sense to treat short-term workload increases as a given. The harder issue is the likelihood of less efficient or effective work during the transition.

Fear of Failure, Fear of Making Mistakes, Fear of Adversity or Conflict In the New Environment, Fear of Process Unknowns

In most workplaces, the flow of everyday work and paperwork is constant and largely done well. It is, in a word, routine. Most employees who have worked there for a while have that system wired. They know what their systems and equipment can do, and they know what they can’t do. They are, in essence, A students on the current system.

Then comes a new system – new software, new policies and procedures or new forms – and all these A students are now in danger of being B or C students, and they are unhappy. People take great pride in their work; they want to do it right. And because of your desire to lead change, you are putting that excellence at risk.

You need to help them live with what will happen. In essence, you need to grant them amnesty during the transition. Communicate something like this:
• “As we move to our new _______, we are all going to be on a learning curve. We will all be starting over in some ways.  It will take time to learn and we will make mistakes. We’ll get on top of it quickly because we are a great group and we do great work together.”
• “During this period, we really do need to give each other a break, and support each other.”
The point is to give these A students permission to be C students during the transition, while expressing absolute confidence in their return to A status.

One reason to prepare them is to try to prevent the conflicts between employees that arise from the tensions of transition, and a lot of that tension involves fear of mistakes. Reduce the transition tension over mistakes and you lower the potential for conflict. That is why the message also needs to reflect the sense of team.

Another major fear of employees is the new system won’t function well or as intended. There are plenty of examples, especially with software conversions, and employees had to deal with unhappy customers. Most of us can remember when companies or agencies switched systems and the new software didn’t work as promised, billings turned out to be wildly inaccurate, phone systems were overwhelmed and so on. From a management standpoint, test runs and advance training help ensure the new system will work well. And assuming that there are no “showstoppers” in the preparation, leadership picks a date for the launch.

From a leadership standpoint, the exercise is different. While management activities move toward a “perfect” launch, leadership is focused on possible contingencies. Any major contingency needs to be accompanied by a call for patience and cooperation. That call has both an external (customers and the public) audience, and an internal (employees and company directors) audience. If things do go drastically wrong, the leader has to act decisively.

There many responses, but the first priority is to establish a sense of calm and “can do.” This is especially important with employees, because if they give up or get disheartened, the external audience will get it and things will become more difficult. If things go wrong, managers and leaders need to be clear that there are challenges and they are being addressed. Even though stopping or calling off the change is an option, it should not be suggested early except in extraordinary situations. Tracking activity in a way that both measures the challenges and the progress being made is often critical. It helps the public be more understanding and patient, and gives employees a sense of forward movement.

Above all, leadership must remain calm. Do not be quick to abandon the change. At the same time, don’t sink the ship by staying with a change when you realize it’s going to fail. It’s a judgment call and, if the choice is to stay the course, review progress regularly.

No Self-Interest, No Incentive

In most work environments we serve multiple constituencies. In the public sector, there’s the general public, the political administration in power and our own employees. In the private sector, it can be customers, stockholders, directors, regulators, management and others.

In most cases of change we focus on the value of the change to the external audience. “We’re doing this in the public interest … to serve the public better … to shorten the time it takes to get government permission … so that our customers have a better experience of our services.” Very properly so. If the external audience is your only reference, however, the change will likely have problems internally.

I was once part of a group that reviewed license applications for a number of professions and vocations. There were literally dozen of different applications for all kinds of regulated activity.

When we studied rejection rates for first-time applicants and were stunned to learn the rejection rates ranged from 30 to 100 percent. In some categories, every application was rejected. No wonder we were getting complaints.

I met with the division involved and, in part, my message was that we needed to do a better job on behalf of the applicants and the general public. The response (minus the colorful language) was very direct: “If these folks are too stupid to fill out the application forms correctly, why would we want to give them a license?” Hard to argue with that. So I pulled back to give it more reflection.

When I came back, it was with a new sense of the issue:
• “I thought about what you said and I agree with you. We certainly should think hard about giving a license to someone who can’t even fill out an application correctly.”
• “However, as I reflected on this situation, I also realized that it has very bad consequences for all of you. Few applicants will stop with a single application. Most will apply again and many will fail again. You will have at least 130 pieces of work (the 100, plus the resubmitted 30 percent
who failed), and some of you could have 200 or 300 or more pieces of work (100 percent failures) before you’re done.”
• “That’s a huge burden on you; so I would like to see if we can address this without lowering our standards.”

That really got their attention. Later, I realized that was something I should have thought of from day one.

As a leader, you characterize the reasons for change. Why not begin by identifying whatever self-interest there is in the change that benefits those being asked to change, before talking about who else benefits?

As human beings, we’re pleased when someone recognizes our interests and responds to them. From a leadership standpoint, there’s nothing improper in attending to your people first. It’s your duty as a leader. And though it may not be easy to find the benefits for internal audiences, take the time to look for those advantages. They can, in most cases, be found if you look at it from an employee’s vantage point. In the above example, the incentive was workload reduction. It could also be reducing conflict by eliminating unnecessary overlap in work.

Once, a dispute arose over staff reviewing aspects of legal documentation submitted to the state. The more we looked, the less sense it made for the state to be reviewing those parts of the filings. So we changed the law by removing state responsibility over those parts of the filings and leaving that responsibility to the attorneys who created the documents.

This last point, about re-examining our roles, is important in other areas as well.

Powerlessness, Helplessness, Not Involved in the Change

One main reason people resist change is they resent feeling uninformed, uninvolved and powerless. Resentment can lead to resistance or even sabotage of the change.

In most cases, there is urgency around the change, especially for the leaders. But leaders should think about “urgency.” Too often the focus is on the urgency of announcing change or launching it, and not much focus on what happens if internal (and even external) resistance slows or prevents the change. If that happens, what’s the point of urgency at the start?

A great expression says “go slow to go fast.” The idea is to take more time at the outset to get things right, leading to a much greater chance of success at the end. And, in the end, quicker results.

If possible, the best way to improve the chances of successful change is to involve the group. Tell them what issue you are addressing, and ask for their ideas.

They may initially challenge your view that there is a problem or a need for change, and you need to be able to defend your plan. Even if the reason for change comes down to a promise made by an elected leader or an order from a CEO (both of which are roughly equivalent to “Because I told you to”), you must be ready to answer the why question.

Assuming you survive the initial challenge, ask them how they think you should accomplish it. That will usually have two major outcomes. First, you have a reasonable chance of enlisting them in the change and, therefore, increasing its chance for success. Second, you’re likely to get good ideas you didn’t have.

As discussed earlier, the utility I worked at had two bruising battles with communities over project siting that significantly damaged the company’s public standing. When the company had to engage in another major project with another community, it was clear that a different approach was needed.
Working with a legislator who represented one of the areas most burdened by industrial facilities, we wrote to the leaders of the communities where the strongest project-siting battles had taken place over the years. That letter invited them to a meeting to share their ideas on projects in their communities. A good group showed up and they were asked, “If a company or a governmental agency wants to do a project in your neighborhood, how do you want to be approached by that company or agency?” (Just to be clear, the group was informed at the outset that the utility had an upcoming project and that the guidance provided would be used by the company in pursuing that project.)

Out of these discussions came a “protocol” for working with a community:
1. Tell us before you tell anyone else;
2. Ask our permission;
3. Understand that we may oppose you;
4. Whether we agree to your proposal or we disagree and you overcome our opposition, you should provide the community with benefits commensurate with any harm or burden caused to the community;
5. You should ask us what form the benefits should take.

In siting a new power plant, the utility followed this protocol. The community was informed about the project through its leaders and in community meetings before any announcement in the media. In spite of reservations by the utility’s board members and senior leadership, the company asked the community for permission to build the plant.

The community extensively questioned us on the need for the plant, its impacts on them and alternatives to the plant. At the conclusion of the questions and answers, the community put the permission question on hold, pending the discussion of community benefits.

The benefits discussion began with the community’s list of possible benefits. The utility researched each and came back to the community with what it would take to meet their request, including the costs and any likely challenges if those benefits were part of the project. The community internally debated our analysis and options and produced a package of benefits that we took to the regulatory authorities as part of the proposal to build the plant.

Though it was not part of the discussion or agreement, community leaders wrote to the newspaper supporting both the benefits and the project. This was a different outcome from the other projects, at least in part because the company followed a different path. The community did not feel helpless or “done to”; the community felt an ownership of the entire project and the benefits.

While there was opposition by an outside environmental group, it was unsuccessful at a regulatory level and not pursued in court. Measured against the time litigation takes, this process was much shorter, even if it seemed to take more time at the beginning. Go slow to go fast.

The process does not always have to be that complex or involved. When I was a state cabinet member, I met once a month with all of the division chiefs as a group. Later that same day I would meet with their secretaries. The division chiefs were not entirely happy about this, but they were mostly my appointees. The second meeting became a valuable part of change activities within the agency. Once a working relationship and trust had been achieved, the secretaries were great at advising how best to execute a proposed action. Often they would listen to the proposed change, offer their thoughts and ask what I was trying to accomplish. Once they understood the “why” and the goal, they often proposed a different way to accomplish it. In almost every case, I went with their suggestions. Their suggestions made it easier to achieve the goals because they reduced conflicts, or were more effective.

They were now invested in the change and, in many cases, actually executed “their” change themselves. The best of all worlds.

Loss of Identity, Loss of the “Good Old Days”

To some degree, you can’t spend much time on these reasons. They may be a problem at first but should pass with time and a successful change. Having said that, particularly in cases where the need for change comes from new circumstances rather than something wrong with the existing process, you may want to “bring some of it with you” as you change.

Can you keep names, form numbers or some recognizable feature of the “old way?” If that provides some comfort or stability, and doesn’t harm the change, why not do it? Overcome the tendency to have “the new broom sweep clean,” and instead find ways to make the change seem more evolutionary than revolutionary. It comes down to respect for people and what they are doing today while you drive changes. The advantages of branding change as your own or dramatically new, which is usually done for external purposes, needs to be measured against the potential of strong opposition.

Loss of Job, Loss of Stature, Fear of Adversity

These are an inevitable part of many changes and should be acknowledged directly. As much as possible, do this early enough to allow employees a reasonable chance to demonstrate they should be retained in the new operating environment.

In a software conversion that I instituted many years ago, I warned employees before we started that after the conversion there would be very little manual processing and that they all needed to become adept in a computerized environment. Some chose not to do so and, when I met with them afterward to let them go, I reminded them that they had had a clear opportunity to control their destiny and that they had made their own choices with the consequences that followed. There was still unhappiness and a sense by some that they were entitled to employment based on long service. But, in the end, they had no justification for their protest and their departure did not cause problems with the employees who remained.

Much harder issues are raised when a change process results in fewer jobs and everyone performs well or at least adequately, and no one self-selects out of the new environment. That can and should happen often. So, in addition to warning those who do not make adjustments, we need to make clear what will govern the retention decisions. In some environments that are controlled by union rules or company policies (most often based on seniority), you should make sure you understand those policies.

If you have freedom to choose who is retained, you should explain the criteria you will use. Will your decision be based entirely on seniority or will it include factors such as aptitude in the new environment? If different skills or attributes will be involved, make clear those are a criteria.
For example, if the change results in greater direct interaction with the public, make it clear that you intend to retain those who want to work with the public and do it well. If employees will need to become more involved in selling company products or services, make that clear. That’s been a common trend in banking in the last two decades.

There are two advantages to making expectations clear. One is that it makes later decisions, including employee retention decisions, more transparent and less susceptible to accusations of unfair treatment. The second is that once employees understand what the “new world” will be like, some may decide to opt out.

All of this advance discussion also reduces (though cannot eliminate) the fear of loss of status or fear of adversity among employees. The “competition” should be against your criteria, not each other.

You will also need to be clear that conflict between employees will not earn any points with you. Be clear that you will not tolerate conflict designed to favor one employee over another and that if it happens, the conflict initiator is likely not going to be part of a new team because they did not support a team environment.

Change Fatigue, “Been There, Done That,” Got the T-Shirt

You’re likely to find some of this attitude in most organizations. It often has some real justification, and the statement on the T-shirt is often literally true. If you are new to an organization, you may know none of this history.

Many change processes have been launched with all kinds of hoopla: catchy slogans, objects for the desks, T-shirts, bumper stickers, lapel pins and so forth. They have often been done more than once, so long-term employees may have a collection of “change objects.” That such launch activities make them wary or jaded is understandable.

A few thoughts. Unless the hoopla is critical, skip it. Make the change first, if possible make it theirs, make it successful and then, and only then, brag about it. If there are external impacts, you of course need to be transparent about those with the public, announcing in advance what will occur and when. What we are talking about here is the “high-fiving” before you launch. Hardly ever a great plan.

Never over-promise the outcome of the change. You do need to say that it will improve things or it will be hard to get any level of support, but be as modest as possible in your promises. Under promise and over deliver.

Fear of the Unknown, Loss of Comfort, Loss of Stability, Inertia

For these, there is nothing to do other than acknowledge them and then lead. Tell people forthrightly that change will mean the loss (at least short-term) of stability; that it is out of our mutual comfort zones; that there is always fear of the unknown; and that we need to go anyway.

And inertia is inertia.

The spirit of your leadership is key. Not flamboyance, but rather the confidence of someone who knows what they’re doing, has prepared well and has the strength to handle the bumps that inevitably accompany change.

This one is truly on you and you need to get yourself ready to be the cool head. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” with one small change at the end, is particularly appropriate in every change process:

If you can keep your head when all  about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, or talk too wise:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a [leader, my friend!]


In his career, Robbie Alm worked for Sen. Daniel Inouye in Washington, was an administrative judge for the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, ran the same department, and worked for First Hawaiian Bank and Hawaiian Electric Co., retiring in 2013 as HECO’s executive VP. He is currently president of the Collaborative Leaders Network.

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