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Do people really resist change?

By John Cooney FIML

One of the most valuable leadership lessons we can and must learn from the COVID-19 experience is the willingness of people to change. As a consultant who supports organisations to change, one of the most common management bugbears I experience is the “people resist change” adage. Yet what we have seen over the past months is rapid, almost ubiquitous change at an international level. Workers have moved in a matter of days from relatively highly controlled office environments to working from home being trusted to deliver services.

The change-landscape before COVID-19

And the change hasn’t been haphazard either. Most of it has been substantially more successful when compared to pre-COVID times. How often have we previously heard frontline people apologising for delays caused by system changes? While the intent of the implementation seemed sensible to leaders who authorised it, the delivery frequently let customers down. So, change fails and “people don’t like change,” becomes the conclusion.

Research shows that most change fails to achieve the desired outcome; that’s not suitable for business. Approaches developed over the past couple of decades are based on a belief that people are the problem and miss the fundamental error. They are trying to make poor change ideas easier to implement, allowing the wrong thing to be done faster. Of course, the experience of the past few months has not been without pain. But as many commentators observe, this pandemic can be a watershed. If it is to be, we need to stop crushing the spirit out of workers with out-dated change methodology. We can’t afford to ignore the visible lessons and return to the old ways.

The pandemic that fuelled a widespread change

In a coronavirus world, almost every worker was asked with just a few days’ notice to set themselves up to work from home. They were also allowed to pull for help as and when they need it, ensuring they can continue their work. This is a dramatic and unprecedented change in method and trust. We’ve successfully sped through the necessary change. The reason? People understood the need for the change and can get on and do it.

The two requirements of successful change

So what can we learn from this change experiment on a massive scale?

Firstly, if the need for change is clear, and particularly if it is for a reason beyond the organisation’s wellbeing, people will support it and go to extraordinary lengths to achieve success.

Secondly, if workers are allowed to make the required changes and enabled to pull for the help they individually need, they will change.

These two requirements of successful change have been present in this transformation to remote working.

  • People have been willing to change in response to the COVID risks; working from home, despite often difficult arrangements with shared spaces and conflicting family needs. While you could argue they have a personal health benefit to do this, most people complied and adapted for the sake of the health and well-being of others in the community. This was not an organisational need, but a community need that everyone could play a part.
  • Organisations responded by sending people home and trusting them to contact their team leaders and support teams (IT and HR) to make it work for them. Stories of system changes, that had been talked about for years, being delivered in days just reinforce our capability to adjust and assist when the chips are down.

These two features of swift change are seldom present in typical change programmes within organisations. If either is present, then it is quickly crushed by unsubstantiated ideas (as opposed to data-based knowledge) about the change, often through rumour mills or even within the organisational hierarchy.

Clarity, precision and purpose

When we accept change because it is based on precise data of customer need (a purpose outside the organisation), then we improve performance, deliver better service and reduce waste. We also manage to beat the “people resist change” mentality. If the case for change was evidence-based and clear, workers and those who support them could be allowed to experiment with solutions that solve problems. If the data to prove the need for change existed in the first place, measurement of the improvement should be easy to build so that those implementing can receive the feedback they need to keep adapting and improving.

Sound a little dangerous and uncontrolled? Those that react in this way are best described as managers. Those that are intrigued and open to this opportunity, let’s call them leaders.

In every crisis, there is an opportunity. Our collective, positive response to the changes demanded by COVID-19 provided a blueprint for how to adapt to an increasingly fast-changing future. It requires new thinking by leaders and a different method for change. Organisations make change difficult, but people can adapt magnificently if allowed to, and given the support to succeed. All we must do is recognise the lessons learned.


John Cooney is a Fellow at IML ANZ. He is a leadership and business consultant with Vanguard Consulting.


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