During large organisational transformation, we often focus on employee resistance to change. Employees may be tempted to resist change simply because of fear of being exposed to something new that they deem unnecessary or a threat to a tried and trusted way of doing business. There are many tips out there on how to reduce employee resistance to change. Perhaps one of the most important ones is to involve employees early on and make them feel part of the change.
Sometimes though, it’s the leaders themselves that become the obstacle. We see examples of this every day, from prime ministers and presidents rigging elections in order to stay in power, to top executives ignoring the need for change and therefore failing to address systemic problems in their organisations. There are five common reasons for a leader to resist change:
- Lack of understanding of the need for change
- Potential loss of control
- Fear of failure
- Increased workload and lack of time
- A culture of resistance to change due to past failures
Managers can only become effective change leaders when they have reflected upon and addressed their own source of resistance. Key to enabling change is ensuring that leaders are supported in addressing these issues.
If leaders are reluctant to lead the change however, a completely different approach would be to address the change from the bottom up. This is when the change is instigated by employees who are not part of top management. Leandro Herrero, the author of Viral Change, argues that it is people’s everyday behaviours that determine an organisation’s ‘culture’, not formal statements, structures and processes that usually emerge from conventional ‘cultural change programmes’. He goes on to contend that change is actually created by “social interaction in networks of influence”. According to Herrero “there is no point in communicating to all and cascading down as the only mechanism of spreading change.”.
There are clear benefits to this approach. Bottom up change management is by its very nature more inclusive. More inclusiveness in the decision making process is more likely to create buy-in and support throughout the business. The more inclusive approach also means more transparency and a higher level of trust in the change.
However, there are also potential pitfalls to this approach. Employees lower in the hierarchy might lack strategic perspective. The more democratic nature of the approach also means that decision making is slowed down.
As in most cases, the holy grail can be found somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum. The change doesn’t have to come from the top or the bottom, but can be instigated by a coalition of people from any part of the organisation. John Kotter argues that change should be led by a coalition whose power comes from a variety of sources. These include job title, status and positions of power but also softer aspects such as credibility, trustworthiness and respect.
Each change is different, as are the organisations within which they take place. So we must choose an approach that fits that particular organisation and change the best, be it top-down, bottom-up or a combination of the two.