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Quiet Quashers: Unseen Change Resistance in the Workplace

“We’re living in a time of unprecedented change.” If I had a dime for every time I heard that phrase over the past few years, I’d be a wealthy woman. But it’s undeniably true. Rapidly advancing technology, the proliferation of AI, shifting demographics, changing global markets, organizational realignments, and more continue to transform the workplace in profound ways and at a profound pace.

It’s easy, as a leader, to focus on the mechanics of what must happen, and the action steps and milestones required to reach the future state. In the process, we can forget that change is fundamentally a human phenomenon that may not respond to even the best-laid plans. we’ve all seen that play out in overt ways.

Change Resistance

  • Open resistance, characterized by the obvious and verbalized messages that let you know clearly that someone is not supportive. As frustrating as open resistance can be, the good news in these situations is that there are no surprises. You know where others are coming from.
  • Quiet resistance, which may look like a smile to your face but undermining behavior behind your back. This dangerous form of resistance requires heightened cue sensitivity and benefits from solid trusting relationships with others.
  • Skepticism about you, your real goals, and objectives. The benefit of this response is that the questions and push-back provide a platform for educating, influencing, and swaying opinions.

But as challenging as these employee responses are, they don’t represent the greatest threat to successfully implementing change. Instead of focusing exclusively on the apparent and usual suspects, leaders must put more attention on these invisible but powerful impediments to change:

  • Apathy, which is evidenced by someone who simply doesn’t care or can’t find the time to care. It’s not resistance; it’s just that what you’re saying might not resonate powerfully enough to break through the barrage of other priorities and information.
  • Placation, which is apathy packaged politically and in a more palatable way. Someone who’s placating will appear to be on board and going along with the program—as long as you’re there. But in your absence, inaction creeps in and nothing happens.

Apathy and placation are likely to kill your change effort more quickly than the louder and more obvious of their change-response cousins—but not for leaders who practice three key strategies.

  1. Understand the relationship between apathy and anxiety. Business today is a high-stakes and highly stressful environment. People operate under constant and unprecedented pressure. Anxiety reigns and one of its most common symptoms is apathy. Information overload, decision fatigue, and daily life offer more input than any one person can care about. Survival means being selective. Appreciating this dynamic and empathizing with others builds relationships, trust, and a sense of understanding.
  2. Find and fuel the passion. Breaking through the inertia of apathy is easier when you can tie your change to something that matters deeply to others. Getting to know the whole person and what makes him or her tick goes even deeper than identifying common interests—and can be a tool for breaking the logjam that results from individual or group apathy.
  3. Make it easy. Just like you, your employees have more to-dos than can be accomplished in a given day. Even if the soul is willing, the body (and the clock) just might not conspire toward action. As a result, it’s critical to provide the step-by-step support required to help others implement the change. This might involve providing tools or being a resource yourself to help get things done. Try breaking down actions that might seem overwhelming into smaller sub-steps and shorter time frames. Keep in mind that, given competition for time and brain-share, if it’s too hard, the apathetic or placating employee just won’t get around to doing it.

In business, survival frequently comes down to being able to change. And there are considerable forces that consistently work against such change. Address the obvious resistance, but make sure to look beyond what the naked eye can see. Because, the subtle, invisible forces of apathy and placation just might be the most powerful barriers to breaking the status quo.

This post was originally published at SmartBrief.

Updated March 2024. 

5 comments on “Quiet Quashers: Unseen Change Resistance in the Workplace

  1. Sayre Darling on

    Julie, I’d suggest that an additional factor creating resistance is self-protection. Middle Managers that I work with are struggling to get some of their team members to take on additional initiatives. They are often overwhelmed in their professional (or personal lives) and they are trying to create some kind of control in their roles and responsibilities to offset feelings of being overwhelmed, disconnected, grieving (“All change is loss, all loss must be mourned”), and angry at being asked to make one… more… change.
    That’s why it is critical for leaders to acknowledge current priorities, shift those priorities in order of importance (making sure they follow that up with adjusted deadlines and KPIs), contextualize all of the changes into the organization’s strategies, and increase the frequency of their communications and personal check-ins with their team members. And it is also critical to communicate about change in real language and not rely on the corporate jargon contained in the executive PowerPoint decks.

  2. Mickey Santos on

    Another issue, especially a concern among rank and file, is if the change will result in a team member not having a career anymore based on the change due to either outsourcing or converting the resource’s tasks to an AI powered solution. There have been enough examples of people being required to complete projects that result in their jobs being outsourced (most news media publicized example was the outsourcing of thousands of jobs at Disney IT), that most team members are can read the figurative tea leaves well when corporate decides to make such decisions in the news. Most normal human beings do not embrace change when that change is fashioning a stick for one’s own behind from a certain point of view.


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