Overcoming change resistance

Oct 29, 2023

Take these steps to reduce resistance and increase the likelihood of success for any change initiative.

If you use LinkedIn these days, you would think that implementing change in any given organization must be easy. It seems like half the people using the platform are self-described “change agents” or “disrupters.” Yet, ask anyone who has experience implementing change in an AEC firm, and my guess is they will tell you it’s rarely as easy as it should be. People resist change. For many employees, their first reaction is to fight any kind of change that is either proposed or underway.

It’s like you owned a pizza restaurant and asked your employees, “Can we make pepperoni available on our pizzas?” And then your people tell you, “We can, but it will be extremely difficult. If pepperoni is readily available from our wholesale food supplier, it will take at least eight weeks to make that available on our menu, for reasons of blah, blah, blah….” Why so long? Why not tomorrow? These situations are so typical in companies.

So how can you reduce resistance and increase the likelihood of success for any change initiative? Here are some things I have seen work:

  1. Announce the change long before it will take effect. We learned this tactic years ago when companies had to announce a no smoking policy in their office. When you could tell people the policy was changing four or even six months before the change was to take effect, it went much more smoothly. The people could better prepare themselves for it.
  2. Sell the benefits of the change. Don’t ever underestimate the power of selling. Hold meetings. Send emails. Explain the rationale for why you are making the change. Explain the benefits and how those will positively impact individuals. Better yet, over-explain.
  3. Create fear around not changing. This may not be a tactic you want to use but it can be effective. Sometimes creating fear around what could happen if you don’t change is a more powerful motivator than a potential positive benefit that will accrue from making the change. Scare tactics!
  4. Use the old timers as influencers to help with the launch of the change. This one was taught to me by a friend who is a fourth generation owner and manager of a large family business. He told me the first person you need to win over is whomever has been there the longest. Because if you don’t, when that person holds “the meeting AFTER the meeting” in the parking lot or lunch room (or wherever) to go over what is happening, you want that person on your side. It makes so much sense that you just can’t argue with the approach.
  5. Create a physical change to go along with a management or strategy change. Sometimes you need to reflect operational or organizational changes in the physical facilities. Maybe walls need to come down or go up? Maybe people need to be moved around in the space? Maybe new uses for the space have to be accommodated? Maybe new signage has to go up? Then people know it’s real and not just something you HOPE you can do – instead it is something you ARE doing.
  6. Be an “open-book” company. The more people understand all of the numbers of the business and all of the performance metrics, and how the business is doing relative to its goals and industry norms, the more apparent it will be to them what needs to change and why. That’s just one of the (many) benefits of being an open-book company.

Depending on the type of change you are trying to implement, and the history and culture of the organization you are trying to implement change in, you may find you need to use more than one, or possibly all of the ideas above to make that change successfully.

And one last point I have found over the years of implementing change in companies – the less successful a business is, the easier it may be to implement change. People know what they are doing isn’t working. It’s one reason why I have always had a preference for acquiring unprofitable businesses – their people are ready to do something different. You can’t say that about highly profitable businesses! 

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.