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Overcoming Resistance to Change

In a rapidly changing world, adaptability is increasingly important for success in all areas of life. As leaders know all too well, fostering adaptability and overcoming resistance to change can be daunting. By building trust, communicating effectively, and providing support and resources, leaders can help their teams thrive.

Common Barriers to Change

Some of the biggest barriers to change include fear of the unknown, lack of trust, and the “comfort zone,” where some employees may resist change that feels unnecessary. 

    • Staff may feel uncertain or anxious about how a change will affect their work, workload, or community as a whole. 
    • If stakeholders don’t trust leadership or don’t feel heard, they may be less likely to support new ideas or initiatives.
    • Some employees may feel “the way things have always been done” is best. Employees may struggle to adapt to change that feels unnecessary or outside their comfort zone—like a new software implementation or process that feels cumbersome to completing the same work.
    • When faced with constant change, employees tend to show increased anxiety, cynicism and burnout, known as change or initiative fatigue

Strategies for Overcoming Resistance to Change

So how can leaders overcome resistance to change and foster a culture of adaptability? According to Gallup—the leaders in measuring employee engagement—communicating clearly a vision for change is the leader’s role. Focus on the need for change, the benefits it will bring, then build a coalition. 

“How leaders communicate a change to their team is critical to adoption and successful implementation,” shares CEL Vice President Janet Swiecichowski. “Change creates disruption, uncertainty and stress. Effective communication can reduce anxiety and inspire teamwork in the face of change.”

Gather data to inform your decisions.
This can include surveys, focus groups, or other forms of feedback to gauge the needs and perspectives of stakeholders. By using data to inform strategies, leaders can create more targeted, practical approaches to overcoming resistance to change.

Invite stakeholders to participate in the change process.
Help build buy-in and support for new initiatives by engaging stakeholders in dialogue. Incorporate their perspectives into the planning/implementation process.

Provide learning opportunities to increase capacity and skills needed to implement the change.
Change requires new learning. Training in new tools or processes, skills or customer service also provides opportunities for staff to share concerns, solutions, and successes. Be sure to support and celebrate your early adopters, who can help influence others.

You may also identify a need for materials that support your initiative—consider things like key message cards, magnets, or badges, reminder stickers, FAQ or tracking webpages, or a dedicated internal question email or phone line.

Thoughtfully plan updates in your communications strategy.
It’s easy to generate excitement at the beginning of a new initiative, but change takes time. Set up milestones and regular communication markets to sustain momentum. Communicate consistently and strategically, ensuring stakeholders are aware of progress and monitoring.

Strategies for Fostering Adaptability

For change to take root and be sustainable, leaders must build capacity for change throughout the organization. In addition to providing professional development opportunities, creating networks for sharing best practices and creating structures and processes for ongoing collaboration build commitment. Leaders who foster a more adaptable, resilient organization better weather future changes.


Create a culture of innovation and experimentation

Creating a culture of innovation by encouraging staff to share ideas and try new things, providing resources and support for innovation, and applauding creativity and risk-taking. 

Is there an outlet to share their innovative projects between departments and teams? How do teams share their wins and transfer lessons learned? Are there groups or events that partner similar job positions to build on ideas? If not—consider hosting one!

A great example of creating a space for collaboration is Andrea Gribble’s organization, Social Schools 4 Edu. If you identify an area where employees could benefit from connecting with others in similar roles, or need support performing specific tasks, look for a partnering organization to provide professional development. And if you don’t find anything, consider kicking one off! For example, a roundtable discussion can foster important networking opportunities and connections for key staff to share best practices.


Address uncertainty.
Change can be scary. Address fears by providing transparent communication about the change initiative. Create opportunities for stakeholders to ask questions, provide feedback, and share concerns. Follow-up on concerns and questions. Help mitigate fear-induced resistance to change by breaking down the change initiative into smaller, more manageable steps.

Celebrate successes.

Change can be a long, arduous process, so celebrating successes is important. By highlighting progress made and recognizing the efforts of those involved, leaders can create a sense of momentum and motivation for a change initiative. By recognizing challenges, leaders can also model a growth mindset and help create a problem-solving culture that values learning from failure. Setbacks are opportunities for learning.

Take a critical look at workloads and schedules.
Creativity requires time and space to flourish. When people are constantly overwhelmed with responsibilities, they may not have the mental bandwidth or energy to engage in creative problem-solving. Build time into the workday for innovation and encourage staff to think beyond current knowledge.

This can mean dedicated time for professional learning, opportunities for brainstorming and idea-sharing, and encouraging experimentation. When people have the time and support they need to innovate, they are more likely to come up with new, effective solutions to the challenges they face.

Acknowledge failures.
A culture of innovation also recognizes that failure is part of the process. Openly address setbacks, and allow staff members to revise plans together. 

Give staff members space to raise concerns. It’s about being heard. When staff feel their concerns are dismissed, they’re less likely to welcome change with open arms. Strive for authenticity in your communications and be comfortable sharing missteps and mistakes. Not every initiative is a success, and that’s okay. 

Revise job descriptions and expectations.
Job descriptions are an important tool for outlining expectations and responsibilities of a particular role, but they can also contribute to employee burnout. Look critically at job demands to ensure they are accurate and realistic. Do they reflect the true expectations of the role, and can one human accomplish them?

“Education is notorious for adding initiatives and not taking away or rebalancing workload (e.g., curriculum, standards, initiatives, expectations),” said Dr. Janet Swiecichowski. “School systems are designed for the outcomes they are currently achieving. To change outcomes, we need to change systems — that includes redesigning roles and responsibilities to the new work expectations. If staff are overloaded, change initiatives will fail.”

Regularly review job demands, mutual commitments and expectations to adjust as needed. Provide opportunities for ongoing professional development, and create a culture that values employee well-being.

By ensuring that employees are working to their strengths with reasonable responsibilities, leaders can help create a more engaged workforce. Redesigning the work requires innovative thinking and a willingness to rethink traditional roles, which can combat resistance to change.

Provide necessary tools and tech.
While innovation and creativity are largely driven by human ingenuity and inspiration, we are also living in an explosive era of technological innovation. When humans and technology work together, what advantages can we find? A recent study by MIT and Stanford researchers found a 14% productivity bump when a customer service call center staff used generative AI in answering calls. Consider both physical and technological resources to increase efficiency and collaboration. 

        • Do staff need a second monitor or laptop dock? 
        • Do work-from-home employees have appropriate internet speed and workstations? 
        • Can you create a best-practice knowledge base for new initiatives?
        • Consider AI solutions that speed up time-consuming or tedious tasks (e.g., Supernormal is a Google Meet extension that will take meeting minutes and summarize a list of action items.)
        • Incorporate AI to collect information and offer data-driven insights.

Stop, collaborate, and listen.
All the communication in the world won’t encourage collaboration if it’s not modeled at the top. Lead your organization through collaborative exercises to spark ingenuity. Examples include:

        • Design thinking involves a problem-solving process that emphasizes empathy, creativity, and iteration. Teams work to identify a problem or challenge, gather information and insights, brainstorm to prototype potential solutions, and test to refine their ideas. This approach is best for ill-defined or unknown problems (i.e., we know families are unhappy with our career programs, but we don’t know why or how to solve the problem).
        • Jigsaw: This approach involves dividing a task or topic into smaller parts, then assigning each part to a different team member. Each person becomes an expert on their assigned part. Later, teams reconvene to share their insights.
        • Round-robin brainstorming: In this exercise, each team member takes turns contributing ideas to a shared list. The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible without judgment or criticism. Encourage wild ideas, which can be iterated and refined into workable solutions. Shared documents, forms, or JamBoards might be used to collect the inputs.
        • Lean Coffee: This is an agenda-less approach to meetings. Participants propose discussion topics, then the group votes on which topics to discuss. Each topic is given a set amount of time for discussion. This ensures meetings target topics that are important to the majority of attendees.

Need support? At CEL, we love to lead teams through collaborative problem-solving exercises. Using third-party support ensures leaders can join the collaborative process or step outside the room when staff may feel vulnerable speaking their truth.

Innovation and adaptability are essential skills for success in today’s world. Leaders play a critical role in developing these skills, not just in students but also in staff. Leaders can support innovation and drive positive change by fostering a culture of creativity, collaboration, and experimentation, building trust, and communicating effectively.



Published on: May 31, 2023