Caveo Learning

Corporate Strategy and Learning Center

Change Management and Countering Resistance to Organizational Change

Posted by Sue Weller, CPLP, SPHR on April 23, 2015

change_managementChange management is an important discipline within the learning and development industry. But what is change management, and what does it mean for those of us in L&D organizations?

Change management is the systematic process of applying the knowledge, tools, and resources needed to effect change to the people who will be impacted by it. Change management is about looking at the desired state and envisioning how things should be, and then taking a critical eye to the current state to make sure we are clear with where we are right now. And then, the transition state is that journey we take with our employees to move them from the current state to the desired state, closing up the gap. Change initiatives are ultimately built around this transition state.

It’s important to understand that when faced with change, individuals may react in a range of ways, from apathy and resistance to fear and anger to optimism and excitement. When talking about the work environment, employees facing change generally fall into one of three categories:


Representing about 10% of the workforce, Pioneers are just waiting for a reason to change and charge ahead. They want you to tell them what you want, and then get out of their way.


Settlers make up the bulk of workers—approximately 70%. They are not averse to change… they just don’t want to go first. They want to see how it goes for the Pioneers, and then they’ll hop on board.

'CAVE People'

And then there are the “CAVE” people. You know them: Citizens Against Virtually Everything. They are a smaller but more vocal group that always seems to stir things up.

Having plenty of Pioneers in the organization obviously helps pave the way for a smoother transition, but most people will be neutral or negative. Organizational change is scary, after all.

Successful organizational change doesn’t just happen; it requires the application of a well-thought-out organizational change management plan.

Just how important is change management? According to a Harvard Business Review study, roughly 70% of change initiatives fail. They fail for a host of reasons, but it generally boils down to a lack of an implementation plan, a fuzzy definition of the desired state, or ignoring the potential for resistance.

Components of Successful Change Management

Let’s explore the necessary components of a successful change management initiative, starting with the three critical facilitation parties.

First and foremost, the initiative needs change sponsors. These are individuals with the authority, resources, and accountability to call for and support the change. The people are typically fairly influential within their organization, and they often act as the “face” of the initiative. Ideally, the sponsor will master the elevator speech, and will be able to clearly and repeatedly articulate why the change is needed and the level of dissatisfaction with the current state. These stakeholders need to keep the organization focused on the change and support the change agents, in addition to holding management accountable for implementing the change.

Change initiatives also need advocates—individuals who are clear and vocal supporters of the change efforts. The advocate might not have the power of the sponsor, but he or she should have some influence within the organization. While the sponsor should be the primary face of change initiatives, the advocate is also fairly visible.

The third role is that of change agents—the people who are tasked with facilitating the change. They’re process owners, technical experts, and support staff who are typically competent, influential, and have some level of understanding of the business, its future direction, and how this change effort impacts the organization. An effective change agent will be able to define and communicate to people in a nonthreatening manner and define what is expected of them. They develop relationships built on trust and commitment. These folks are the day-to-day faces for the change initiatives.

Manage Resistance

A key step in managing change is identifying resistance, in an attempt to mitigate that resistance. While change is always initiated with a view toward a positive outcome, the most common obstacle to successful change is human resistance. Come up with an approach that addresses the resistance and your change will happen faster and more smoothly, and it will have a better chance of sticking.

We address resistance through audience analysis. Gather data that predicts or measures resistance by the various target populations, then analyze it to determine where the problems are, the size of the problems of resistance, and the potential impact on the project. Then, build action plans to mitigate the resistance.

Of course, don’t focus solely on resistance avoidance. There are many positives—or at least, there should be—for the change being implemented; focus on those benefits, as well.

Although it’s easy to want to do so, don’t focus solely on CAVE people, lest you lose the Pioneers who might wonder, “What am I doing all this for?” Or, you could lose the Settlers who think, “You only get attention around here if you're negative.” Always think from the target’s perspective—especially when communicating. It’s less about what you want to tell them, and more about what they need to hear.

How do you think from the target’s perspective? Again start by performing an audience analysis of stakeholders, targeting the population into subgroups. From there, determine their impact on the change action and the impact the action will have on them. Parse the benefits of the changes to each group, as well as the issues and concerns they might have.

Don't overlook the importance of a reinforcement component, to ensure the change sticks after it is communicated and learned. Reinforcement measures can be positive or negative—a reward for following through with the change, or discipline for not. And don’t think that reinforcement needs to be money; believe it or not, financial compensation is actually not one of the biggest motivators for most employees (even though they will tell you otherwise).

Achieve Frontline Buy-In

Often overlooked in the change management process are the frontline supervisors.

Imagine being a supervisor during a weekly team meeting, and one of your employees asks how a newly announced organizational change will impact the team. This change hasn't been discussed with you—how supportive are you likely to be of the change initiative? Probably not very.

Key stakeholders and the sponsor should meet with frontline supervisors directly, expressing why the initiative is important and how it will benefit the organization generally and their teams specifically. Ask for their input early on in the process—supervisors may have a more nuanced understanding of the impacts and potential resistance factors within their workforces. Give them "heads-up" communications as the process moves forward. Create a talking-points deck for supervisors to share with their teams, and check in periodically to make sure everyone is on the same page. And perhaps most importantly, recognize them for their efforts in supporting the change; they will bear the brunt of the employees' frustration, so it is important to remind them that they themselves are appreciated and supported, too.

Topics: Change Management