Skip to main content

The Human Side of Change

With improvement efforts, we are asking people to test changes for better outcomes. What we often get is “push-back.” Resistance is a normal human reaction to change. Sometimes it is because the change is imposed rather than chosen or self-initiated. Typically, habitual routines are disrupted and extra work is required. For many, the rewards do not outweigh the effort or cost of making the requested change. And most often, there is an element of fear and loss involved: fear of the unknown, of appearing incompetent, of giving up something of perceived importance.

Change is a highly personal experience, and adoption of new ideas and behaviors will vary across individuals. Expect a negative reaction from most at first—fear, anxiety, insecurity—which may appear to be resistance. This initial reaction is energy, which can be mobilized in a number of directions, many of them positive. Get the resistance in the open, make it discussable, and learn from it. Create a safe environment for expression and attend to root causes. Then recheck the status of agreements: “How can we move ahead?” After the reactive phase comes a creative phase—here is where people have choice. Help people move from the reactive to the creative phase:

  • Involve them in ownership of the idea, allow them to give input, and be part of the process of change.
  • Resolve ME issues quickly—e.g., Do I get a vote? What are the expectations? What are the rules?
  • Make decisions at the lowest level possible, with those who are close to the problem.
  • Be clear on the purpose of the change. Address everyone’s personal radio station—WII-FM (What’s In It For Me?).
  • Reduce the costs and enhance the benefits of the change.
  • Create a vision of a better world at the end of the change (use PULL rather than PUSH strategies). Make the future compelling.
  • Make sure the message for change comes from a trusted source and is reinforced by respected leaders.
  • Provide the social support, education, and helping hand to be sure people do not fail.

In the habit change literature, people typically take about 21 days to incorporate a new behavior. Chances are good that they will go through these five phases on the way:

  • Ignoring the issue
  • Attending to the issue
  • Planning their strategy
  • Executing (and having relapses)
  • Embedding the new behavior

Seek to understand and be patient with the resistance, but be willing to lead those who are willing to move ahead. Change efforts are made one-by-one, but it only takes a fraction of believers to create a revolution.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead

For additional information and references, see: