Managing Changes in the Workplace

Team members discussing company changes
gilaxia / Getty Images

Managing change means managing people's fear. Change is natural and good, but people's reaction to change is unpredictable and can be irrational. It can be managed if done right.


Nothing is as upsetting to your people as change. Nothing has greater potential to cause failures, loss of production, or falling quality of work. Yet nothing is as important to the survival of your organization as change. History is full of examples of organizations that failed to change and are now extinct. The secret to successfully managing change, from the perspective of the employees, is definition and understanding.

Resistance to change comes from a fear of the unknown or an expectation of loss. The front end of an individual's resistance to change is how they perceive the change. The back end is how well they are equipped to deal with the change they expect.

An individual's degree of resistance to change is determined by whether they perceive the change as good or bad, and how severe they expect the impact of the change to be on them. Their ultimate acceptance of the change is a function of how much resistance the person has and the quality of their coping skills and their support system.

Your job as a leader is to address their resistance from both ends to help the individual reduce it to a minimal, manageable level. Your job is not to bulldoze their resistance so you can move ahead.

Perception Does Matter

If you move an employee's desk six inches, they may not notice or care. Yet if the reason you moved it those six inches was to fit in another worker in an adjacent desk, there may be high resistance to the change. It depends on whether the original employee feels the hiring of an additional employee is a threat to his job or perceives the hiring as bringing in some needed assistance.

  • A promotion is usually considered a good change. However, an employee who doubts their ability to handle the new job may strongly resist the promotion. They will give you all kinds of reasons for not wanting the promotion, just not the real one.
  • You might expect a higher-level employee to be less concerned about being laid off because they have savings and investments to support them during a job search. However, the individual may feel they are overextended and that a job search will be long and complicated. Conversely, your concern for a low-income employee being laid off may be unfounded if they have stashed a nest egg in anticipation of the cut.
  • Your best salesperson may balk at taking on new, high-potential account because they have an irrational feeling that they don't dress well enough.

If you try and bulldoze this resistance, you will fail. The employee whose desk you had to move will develop production problems. The top worker who keeps declining the promotion may quit rather than have to continue making up excuses for turning you down. And the top salesperson's sales may drop to the point that you stop considering them for the new account. Instead, you overcome the resistance by defining the change and by getting a mutual understanding.


You need to define the change for the employee in as much detail, and as early as you can on the front end, Provide updates as things develop and become clearer. In the case of the desk that has to be moved, tell the employee what's going on. "We need to bring in more workers. Our sales have increased by 40%, and we can't meet that demand, even with lots of overtime. To make room for them, we'll have to rearrange things a little." You could even ask the employees how they think the space should be rearranged. You don't have to accept their suggestions, but it's a start toward understanding.

Definition is a two-way street. In addition to defining the problem, you need to get the employees to define the reasons behind their resistance.


Understanding is also a two-way street. You want people to understand what is changing and why. You also need to understand their reluctance.

  • You have to help your people understand. They want to know what the change will be and when it will happen, but they also want to know why. Why is it happening now? Why can't things stay like they have always been? Why is it happening to me?
  • It is also important that they understand what is not changing. Not only does this allow for one less thing to stress about, but it also provides an anchor, something to hold onto as they face the winds of uncertainty and change.
  • You need to understand their specific fears. What are they concerned about? How strongly do they feel about it? Do they perceive it as a good or a bad thing?

Manage This Issue

Don't try to rationalize things. Don't waste time wishing people were more predictable. Instead, focus on opening and maintaining clear channels of communication with your employees, so they understand what is coming and what it means to them. They will appreciate you for it and will be more productive both before and after the change.