Control vs. choice: How to break down employee resistance to change
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Control vs. choice: How to break down employee resistance to change

What happens when you ask people to change what they do, or the way they do it? It could be anything: requiring them to write different reports, use new software, or move from one team to another.

Well, sometimes things go fine. Your people understand why the change is necessary, and get right on board with it. But often, they don’t. They want to stick to their old ways, and they come up with reason after reason, some of them plausible, for resisting the change you know needs to happen.

So what can you do?

To answer that question, let’s look at what you’re actually doing when you require that employees change their work or their routines.

Before you intervened, these people felt a sense of control over their work. They had autonomy. By demanding change, you took that away, and they want it back. And you want them to have a sense of control. People work harder and achieve more when they do. So the challenge is to preserve people’s feeling of control, and still get them to embrace the change.

Burning to choose

Research from The London Business School and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management suggests a way: To restore a sense of control, offer more choice.

To explore the relationship between power and control on one hand, and choice on the other, researchers tested two groups of people. The first were primed to imagine themselves in a high-power, high-control role (a boss). The second group was told to imagine they were in a low-power role (an employee).

Next, the researchers described two stores with different levels of choice. One offered a limited selection and the other a wide range of merchandise.

The researchers asked both groups how much effort they would make to shop at the store with the broad selection. Would they drive farther — and how much farther? If the limited-choice store was open right now and the high-choice store was closed, would they be willing to wait for the high-choice store to open — and for how long?

The people in the low-power roles wanted more choice. They were willing to drive significantly farther and wait longer to get it.

Disarming resistance

Think about what this means for your employees. If you’re going to take away their control by asking them to do something they don’t want to do, you can make up for it by giving them more choice. By offering choices, you reestablish their sense of control and disarm their resistance.

Of course, they don’t get to choose whether to comply. But you can be flexible about how they go about it – in other words, choices related to process.

For example, if an employee — let’s call her Rita — is giving you excuses for why she hasn’t started a new project, say, “Rita, we both want to get this moving. So which part would you recommend that you tackle first and when can you get started?”

If she says her schedule is too busy for weekly progress meetings with you, tell her, “I can be flexible, Rita; suggest a time that works for you.”

If she’s dragging her heels on delegating, say, “Rita, how about you make some recommendations about which tasks you might be able to hand off, and to whom?”

Notice the use of words such as “recommend,” “suggest,” and “give some thought.” They imply that you’re empowering Rita to make choices.

Small choices, big effects

These choices may seem superficial, but other research suggests that even small choices about process can result in greater buy-in and better performance. For example, children do significantly better at solving puzzles when they’re allowed to choose which color pen to use, versus when the researcher chooses the pen for them.

Another way to introduce choice into the process is by asking multiple-choice questions. For example, you might say, “Rita, here are three different ways we might tackle this problem. Which of them do you think we should try?”

The research also tells you what NOT to do: Don’t respond with power. If employees push back, you’ll feel your own sense of control threatened, and you’ll want to respond by pushing back yourself. But that’s the worst thing you can do — because it threatens the employee’s sense of control even more. Instead of locking horns, take a step back, regroup, and think about how you can build more choice into the process.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Change Management: How to Disarm Resistance. ” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research studies:

Inesi, M.E., et al. (2011) Power and choice: their dynamic interplay in quenching the thirst for personal control. Psychological Science, 22(8):1042-8

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get a demo of all our training features

Connect with an expert for a one-on-one demonstration of how Rapid Learning can help develop your team.