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Facing change resistance? Understand it first, then get your communications right

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 — May 24th, 2021

Facing change resistance? Understand it first, then get your communications right

“How hard can this be?” asked our exasperated client. “I mean, all they need to do is go to the website, fill in the form and select their benefits. It’s not neuro-surgery, it’s a form for #$$^&* sake!”


That frustrated communications manager thought rolling out a new benefits program would be a one-and-done thing.

Three months in, enrollment is stalled, nobody is attending the information sessions and HR is struggling to keep up with emails enquiring about chiropody.

What we have here is a pretty classic case of resistance. Fortunately, resistance can often be overcome with some well-thought-out communication.

Start at the source

We know that about 70% of organizational change fails, and there are plenty of great models to understand how change should happen and why it doesn’t always work.

One of our favorites at the Academy of Business Communication is called the Knoster model (fun fact, it was actually conceived by Dr. Mary Lippitt at Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1987 and adapted by Tim Knoster).

The model proposes that successful change requires a solid vision, a good action plan, consensus, skills, and resources. The absence of any one or more of these creates everything from anxiety to sabotage to false starts.


We love this as a diagnostic tool, and we often add a “communications” column at the end to remind our clients that if you don’t communicate change properly, all that other good planning stuff goes out the window.

Using this tool our client quickly realized there was a skills gap. The old benefits plan offered great coverage and was easy for employees to use because they filled out a paper form and shipped it to HR for processing.

The 8 C-steps to successful business transformation communication

The new program would require them to set up a profile on the insurer’s system, enter their own claims and upload the documentation themselves.

A little bit of digging revealed the company’s many hourly workers were not comfortable using the unfamiliar tool and many did not have smartphones or computers at home. In other words, the skill gap was creating anxiety about not being able to file claims easily or having claims rejected.

Who’s losing what?

There is a myth that humans are afraid of change. As a species, we’re actually pretty adaptable. What we do fear is loss.

When you’re facing some resistance and can’t quite place it, consider what the resistant groups might fear they are losing. Is it power, influence, security, autonomy or, in the case of our client’s employees, money?

We often see loss turning up as a source of resistance in changes such as a restructuring or office moves.

Years ago, I faced a near rebellion when my team was temporarily moved to another floor in our building while they renovated. Even though everyone was moved to the same size workspace with the same people around them, there was resistance.

Turns out the issue was where the executives were sitting. Some of the team were anxious because the poo-bahs would not see them slaving away at all hours; others were terrified the executives would stop by and ask questions about their work.

In the end, we all had fun playing Lost Boss Bingo since the executives ignored the floor plans and spent the first month trying to find their own offices.

Behavior drives messages (and the other way around)

Once you’ve got a good handle on where your resistance is coming from, you can begin to address it using communication. We use a simple grid we borrowed from our agency days.

First, we list what we want employees to do – in the case above, sign up for the new benefits program. Then we list the top two or three things this group of employees needs to believe for this action to make sense, and what facts will support that decision.

In the case above, our client’s employees needed to believe that the new plan was better, that they would be reimbursed faster, and that full training and support would be provided.

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The rightmost column is pulled from the resistance analysis and lists what the employees are thinking now. Our client pulled some of the comments from her research including: “I like the way things work now”. “I don’t understand our benefits; I count on HR to input the claim properly.” “I am afraid I will do it wrong”.

Based on the employees’ current thinking and her desired outcomes, our client was able to draft a handful of key messages to focus her communications. Working with the insurer she created a new set of materials for front line managers, HR business partners, and leaders to use to encourage sign-ups.

If you’re facing resistance to change in your organization, taking the time to understand where it’s coming from and then tuning your communications to help people push past it, may help move things along.

Main image courtesy of Ross Findon on Unsplash

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