How to Uncover Organizational Resistance to Change [Top Warning Signs of Hidden Employee Resistance]

Written By: Eric Kimberling
Date: August 16, 2023

Your team and organization might believe they are prepared for organizational change. However, it's likely they are not. Today, we will discuss the most significant indicators of change resistance within your organization.

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When working with global organizations on initiatives such as digital transformations, business transformations, or any change initiatives, we frequently encounter executives who believe that change resistance will not be an issue. They often claim their teams are adaptable and that significant investment in change management is unnecessary. Instead of merely pointing out the oversight, this discussion aims to highlight the subtle indicators of change resistance. These overlooked signs can be strong predictors of impending challenges.

Resistance to Change

A significant number of clients we engage with believe that, at first glance, their teams are prepared for change. These teams often understand the necessity for change, especially when existing systems and processes are outdated and insufficient for future requirements. While this may seem promising, assuming that the change process will be straightforward based solely on this initial enthusiasm is a misstep.

Merely expressing a desire for change and agreeing with its theoretical benefits does not guarantee a smooth transition. It is premature to assume there won't be any resistance later. Such an assumption can be misleading, especially when teams affirm the need for change due to dissatisfaction with current systems.

It's not to suggest that employees or team members are being insincere. However, they might not fully comprehend the intricacies and challenges involved in the change process. The real test of their adaptability and openness often comes when they encounter the practical implications of change. It's crucial to be cautious of this misconception that a team's expressed readiness equates to a lack of resistance or a diminished need for robust change management. This is rarely the case.

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Over-delegating to the Project Team

A key indicator of potential challenges is when executives excessively delegate decision-making responsibilities to the project team. Assuming that the project team alone can make pivotal decisions that drive organizational change is flawed. For instance, when an organization aims to enhance efficiency, establish a common operating model, or achieve notable process improvements, relying solely on the project team or software vendors is insufficient. Such change initiatives must be directed from the top.

Effective transformation often requires executives to make difficult decisions and provide clear direction. Without this leadership, there's a risk the project team will opt for the easiest route: maintaining the status quo. This could result in adopting new technologies while retaining outdated processes.

Be wary of scenarios where the executive team sidesteps their responsibility, leaving the project team without a definitive vision or expectations for the transformation. This could lead the team to resist genuine change and merely replicate existing methods with new tools.

One prominent sign of change resistance is the adherence to the notion, "we've always done it this way." This attitude suggests a commitment to established processes or operational methods, even when there's no clear understanding or rationale for their continued use. The inability to articulate why certain processes exist or why they shouldn't be altered indicates resistance to change. This mindset can obstruct the identification and implementation of potential improvements.

When stakeholders assert that certain methods have always been the standard and question the need for change, it's a clear indication of change resistance.

Another subtle form of resistance is the "regulatory excuse." Companies or project team members may claim that processes cannot be modified due to customer demands or regulatory requirements. While sometimes valid, this reasoning can also serve as a defense against change. It's essential to discern genuine regulatory constraints from those cited merely as an excuse to resist change. This is a phenomenon frequently observed among clients.

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Lack of Understanding

One significant reason employees and team members resist change is a lack of understanding. They might be unclear about the reasons behind the change, its implications for them, and the broader purpose of the transformation. It is crucial to clearly communicate the vision of the transformation, outlining its significance to the organization, individual work groups, and each employee. This vision should highlight the benefits for all stakeholders.

Moreover, it's essential to provide clarity about the post-transformation landscape. Employees need to know how their roles and responsibilities will evolve after the change. If they cannot envision their place in the transformed organization, they are likely to revert to familiar practices, seeking comfort in the known.

This vision should extend beyond just the introduction of new technological tools or software design. It should encompass changes in processes, roles, and responsibilities. For instance, if automation will modify certain job components, employees should understand how their roles will adjust and how they can utilize their time more effectively. Without clear communication and understanding of these aspects, resistance to change becomes more likely.

Undefined WIIFM

A prevalent reason employees and team members resist change is the absence of a clear understanding of personal benefits, often referred to as "What's in it for me?" (WIIFM). While it's essential to provide clarity on how roles, processes, and tools will change, it's equally important to articulate how the transformation will benefit individuals in performing their duties and how it aligns with the organization's broader goals and vision.

If employees do not recognize these personal benefits, they might not only be hesitant about the change but might actively resist it. To effectively navigate this challenge and promote enthusiastic adoption, it's crucial to ensure employees comprehend their role in the larger organizational vision and the direct advantages they stand to gain from the transformation.

Too Much Software Customization

During the initial or ongoing phases of a technological transformation, if there are numerous requests for software customization or significant modifications to meet business requirements, it may be prudent to re-evaluate these demands. Often, these customization requests are less about the software's inadequacies and more indicative of organizational resistance.

For instance, an employee accustomed to a particular system or process might propose alterations to the new software to align it with familiar practices, leading to customization. While it's not always the case, these customization demands can sometimes stem from a reluctance to adopt the new system as designed.

In many project recoveries and expert witness assessments, excessive customization often emerges as a major issue. However, the problem typically isn't that the software was inherently deficient or couldn't meet business needs. Instead, the core issue frequently lies in the inadequate management of organizational change and unaddressed resistance. Hence, it's essential to view software customization not merely as a technical challenge but also as a potential manifestation of change management issues.

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Inconsistent Business Processes

Organizations with inconsistent business processes, resulting from organic growth across multiple locations or through acquisitions, are highly likely to encounter resistance when attempting to standardize these processes. This resistance emerges because individuals have often established processes tailored to their specific needs rather than aligning with the overarching organizational objectives. When an initiative is introduced to standardize these processes or adopt a uniform operating model, employees may resist the change to varying degrees.

Particularly in environments characterized by frequent mergers and acquisitions, it's essential to anticipate this resistance. Before implementing new software or tools, it's crucial to identify commonalities among the existing processes and establish a standardized operating model in areas where uniformity is sought. Attempting standardization during the implementation phase can lead to escalated costs, extended timelines, and increased challenges. Therefore, it's advisable to create a consolidated business process blueprint before moving to the implementation phase.

It's important to note that if an organization continues to operate with varied business processes, this inconsistency can act as a persistent source of resistance.

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Undefined Job Roles

Clear definition of job roles within an organization is crucial, especially when envisioning post-implementation scenarios. When individuals lack understanding about their future responsibilities, they are more likely to resist change. Although the concept of ensuring clarity in roles is related to the broader issue of understanding the benefits of change, it has its unique nuances.

It is essential to meticulously design roles, responsibilities, and expectations. By the time new technology is deployed, employees should fully comprehend and accept their new roles. Failing to provide this clarity prior to implementation can lead to resistance, as employees remain uncertain about their future positions.

During the transformation, it's imperative to address organizational design as early as possible. This endeavor is significantly impacted by process improvements. As the future state operating model and business processes are outlined, and as processes are re-engineered, the nature of various job roles will inevitably change. This presents an opportunity for clarity. Instead of vaguely suggesting that a role will become "more strategic" or will be automated, organizations should clearly explain what these changes mean in practical terms. If a role is being automated, for instance, it is crucial to outline how an employee's time will be reallocated. Addressing these issues ensures that employees are less likely to resist change due to ambiguities in their future roles.

I would enjoy brainstorming ideas with you if you are looking to strategize an upcoming transformation or are looking at selecting an ERP system, so please feel free to contact me at I am happy to be a sounding board as you continue your digital transformation journey.

Be sure to download the newly released 2023 Digital Transformation Report to garner additional industry insight and project best practices.

Kimberling Eric Blue Backgroundv2
Eric Kimberling

Eric is known globally as a thought leader in the ERP consulting space. He has helped hundreds of high-profile enterprises worldwide with their technology initiatives, including Nucor Steel, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Kodak, Coors, Boeing, and Duke Energy. He has helped manage ERP implementations and reengineer global supply chains across the world.

Eric Kimberling
Eric is known globally as a thought leader in the ERP consulting space. He has helped hundreds of high-profile enterprises worldwide with their technology initiatives, including Nucor Steel, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Kodak, Coors, Boeing, and Duke Energy. He has helped manage ERP implementations and reengineer global supply chains across the world.
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