While working, you perceive change on a continuum from cooperation and learning — to resistance and a pain in the ass. 

Change happens, and the cooperation/resistance is what you learn from and look for to co-construct what makes change work to improve the organization’s and your viability in the market. 

How do I work with resistance to change?

Two principles to consider:

  1. Survival Anxiety must be higher than Learning Anxiety. 
  2. Reduce Learning Anxiety rather than increasing Survival Anxiety. 

Survival Anxiety & Learning Anxiety 

“Once the evidence of a need for change happens, you will feel Survival Anxiety or Guilt. You may not feel the Anxiety or guilt directly, but you experience discomfort that something bad may happen to you if you do not respond in some way. You begin to recognize the need for change; you also realize that a new behavior that may be required may be difficult to learn, and the new beliefs or values that are implied may be difficult to accept. This discomfort is Learning Anxiety.” – Schein pp. 111

learning anxiety and cooperation or resistance to change mike cardus

Cooperation Through Change + Learning Anxiety

Psychological Basis of Learning Anxiety / Resistance to Change

Learning Anxiety is a combination of several specific fears, all of which may be active at any time as you contemplate having to relearn something and learn something new.

  • Fear of loss of power or position – The most common basis of resistance to change is the fear that your new learning will become a new role within the organization that will be lower in the status hierarchy or less powerful than the position you now hold. 
  • Fear of temporary incompetence – You do not feel competent during the change because you have given up the old way and have not yet mastered the new one. The best examples probably are evident in efforts to learn to use a new computer or computer system. 
  • Fear of punishment for incompetence – If it takes you a long time to learn the new way of thinking and doing things, you fear repercussions for a decline in productivity. There are notable cases in the computer arena where employees never learn the new system sufficiently to take advantage of its potential because they feel they have to remain productive. So they spend insufficient time on the new learning. 
  • Fear of loss of personal identity – If your current way of thinking is a potent source of identity for you, you may not wish to be the kind of person the new culture requires you to be.
  • Fear of loss of group membership – The shared assumptions that make up a culture also identify who is in and out of the group. In developing new ways of thinking, you become a deviant in your group and might be rejected or even ostracized. To avoid losing group membership, you resist learning new ways of thinking and behaving. Group membership is perhaps the most difficult to overcome because it requires the whole group to change how it thinks and its norms of inclusion and exclusion. 

How do you create Psychological Safety to Change?

Creating psychological safety for changing and learning involves some steps, and they happen almost simultaneously. 

The change team or management must be prepared to implement all of them and monitor what is working and not working well. 

A compelling positive vision 

  • If you are part of the change, you must believe that you and the organization will be better off if you learn a new way of thinking and working. 
  • The vision must be articulated (and widely held) by a majority of people. 
  • Most important of all, the vision must articulate the desired “new way of working.” If the learners do not understand the actual behavior, they cannot figure out what they will have to relearn and how they will go about it. 

Formal Training

  • If you are to learn new ways of thinking, new attitudes, and new skills, you must have access to whatever formal training is required.
  • For example, if the new working method necessitates teamwork, you must provide formal learning for teaming and team performance development. 

Involvement of the learner 

  • If formal training is to take hold, you must understand that you can manage your informal learning methods. 
  • Everyone learns slightly differently, so it is essential to involve learners in designing their optimal learning process. 
  • The goals of learning are defined and understood, but the method of learning can be highly individualized. 

Informal training of relevant ‘family’ groups and teams  

  • Because resistance to change often embeds within group norms, providing informal training and practice to whole groups will support the emergence of new norms and assumptions.
  • The learner should not feel deviant or in the out-group in deciding to engage in new learning. 

Practice fields, coaches, and feedback

  • You cannot learn something fundamentally new if you do not have the time, the resources, coaching, and accurate feedback on how you are doing. 
  • Practice fields are of particular importance to make mistakes and learn from them without disrupting the organization. 

Positive role models  

  • The new way of thinking and behaving may be so different that you must see what it looks like before you can imagine yourself doing it. 
  • You must be able to see the new behavior and attitudes in others with whom you can identify. 

Support groups 

  • Form groups in which problems connected with learning and change are discussed and discovered. 
  • You must be able to talk about your frustrations and difficulties in learning with others who are experiencing similar challenges to support each other and jointly learn new ways of dealing with the problems. 

Systems and structures consistent with the desired changes 

  • It is essential to have organizational structures consistent with the new way of thinking and working. 
  • For example, suppose you are learning how to be a team player. In that case, the reward system must be group-orientated. The discipline system must punish individually aggressive and selfish behavior. The organizational structures must make it possible to work as a team. 
  • Many change programs fail because the new way of working has no weak support from the organizational structures.   
Change – how do we create more stories of what works and fewer stories of what does not work? 
  • Think back to a recent change that you made. Can you identify the disconfirming forces that motivated you to want to change?
  • Once you were motivated to change, how did you go about it?
  • What changed, and how did you ensure that the change would last?
  • Now think back to a recent change required of you by your organization and answer the same questions.
  • What was different between when you initiated the change and when somebody required you to make the change?