How to overcome resistance to change

There are a number of possible reasons for change programmes failing, and for me the biggest one is to do with people.

How to overcome resistance to change

There are a number of possible reasons for change programmes failing, and for me the biggest one is to do with people.

How to Manage Change

Cast your mind back to January 2020. At that time, businesses the world over were already learning to deal with change. For us in Ireland, our big challenge was coping with the fallout from the Brexit vote and all the uncertainty around that. Would there be tariffs on goods moving between our two countries? How would Sterling perform? What did all that mean to competitiveness for Irish businesses and our supply chains?

For the rest of the world, changes brought on by macro events such as technology, trade wars, geo-political power shifts, online growth and the green agenda were on our radars. History is littered with iconic examples of successful change and many failures. Nokia went from being the biggest mobile phone company in the world to being a basket case, because of how it managed change. IBM on the other hand turned its juggernaut of a global business around from near bankruptcy to being number one in the world again, albeit in a different business.

In reality, change before C-19 was and still is our new constant. The speed, the complexity and the volume of change is escalating exponentially. If ever we needed to be reminded of the need to be change ready, the pandemic has taught us that hard lesson. There isn’t an organisation in the world that hasn’t been impacted to some degree. The one good thing about this change is that every individual is aware of what is going on. Whereas more often, decisions to change are made in the boardroom and people at the front line can feel ‘done to’ and in the dark. So they seem to resist change.

Do people really resist change?

As a change management practitioner, I’m regularly told that ‘people resist change’. I’m not  convinced that it’s as glib as that. If that was the case, why does everyone carry a smart-phone? Why do so many drivers buy electric vehicles? Why are there now so many vegans? These are all examples of change that people have embraced in great numbers.

There are a number of possible reasons for change programmes failing, and for me the biggest one is to do with people. That doesn’t mean that people are inherently difficult, it’s just that if we’re asking them to think or behave differently, they should be respected and consulted in the change, where appropriate.

I’m less inclined to believe that people resist change in the workplace, but they do resist coercion. Most people will engage with change when they can clearly see why it’s happening on the one hand and on the other hand, what is in it for them.

Tips on how to manage change

Whether you see change as an opportunity or a threat is up to you and how you cope with it. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel though, as there are tried and tested change management methodologies to help leaders navigate change. My preferred one is John Kotter’s 8-steps.

1. Create a sense of urgency

What is the ‘burning platform’ that is forcing the need for change? If your people don’t see the compelling reason and context, they’ll be less engaged. However, because this pandemic is all consuming, everyone knows that some change is inevitable. So engagement will be higher than on other occasions.

2. Build a guiding coalition

Rather than re-appearing with tablets of stone from your walk up the mountain, get other key stakeholders involved. I usually recommend a steering group that is representative of most divisions. That ensures a broad range of opinions at the early planning phase.

3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives

Plan with the end in mind. Identify the key deliverables, the obstacles, the timelines, accountabilities and metrics. Identify also what is not changing, as this will offer a sense of stability to the more anxious travellers on your journey.

4. Enlist a volunteer army

In a time of change, you cannot over-communicate. Keep everybody informed in a timely way and be sure to empathise.

5. Enable action by removing barriers

Obstacles will inevitably appear and leaders have a duty to support their removal or mitigation. It doesn’t mean that you have to do all the heavy lifting, but you doneed to listen.

6. Generate short-term wins

The ultimate delivery of the change will depend on the scale and size of the challenge. Plan for agility and quick-wins so that you can call them out as they happen and celebrate them. That lets everybody know that this journey is real.

7. Sustain acceleration

Maintain momentum and don’t let any of the old ways creep back in. Old habits die hard and you may have to be relentless about reminding others of the new way. As a top priority, keep communicating regularly and widely.

8. Institute the change

Lock in the change by ensuring that all leaders are now role-modelling the new ways. Reward and recognise those that have adapted to the new world.


We all need to take personal responsibility for embracing change. There is nothing more tiring for others to hear you say: “But we’ve always done it this way!” I overheard a conversation where a guy was complaining that his job had recently changed. For the previous twenty years, he used Excel to track his customers and was now expected to enter them on a CRM system. Now, who can argue against having a CRM system? In that scenario, I’d love to know where that went wrong.

There’s never been a more compelling time for collaboration between the boardroom and the front-line as there is now. There’s lots of goodwill in the air, so embrace it. And that works both ways.

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Culture & Change management expert

Enthusiastic and down-to-earth, Alan can share his hard-won insight from helping global giants to grow profit.