In 2007, Nokia was a leader, commanding a 40% share of the global mobile phone market thanks to its superior technology and enormous economies of scale, which scaled to 96% in a few years. But in early 2012, the company paid out more than US $2 billion in operating expenses. Narrowly skirting bankruptcy, the company knew things had to change. So, in the same year, they quickly turned things around by pivoting to a new model focusing on networking technology rather than handsets and instituting a new leadership, strategy, and work culture. They purchased Siemens and Alcatel-Lucent and began the journey that has placed them at a market capitalization of US $28.04 billion as of 2022.

How did Nokia do this? By undergoing successful change management.

Nokia’s case is an example of a fast and wildly successful change strategy, perhaps because there is nothing left to lose when a company is on the brink. But for those taking up to steer the business in a cutting-edge or more profitable direction, change accompanies deep resistance.

The nuances of employee resistance

In the face of uncertainty, even the most cooperative and supportive employee may be apprehensive of new ideas. Sometimes, it’s the social change that causes resistance, i.e., the shift in interpersonal relationships that follow technical or strategic work shifts. Rather than dismissing the issue of resistance (a strategy that isn’t recommended), organizations ought to understand why resistance happens in the first place.

In our own ways, we each crave stability. Unfortunately, change tends to upend this. When faced with a drastic shift in the overall vision and mission, employees experience a mix of emotions. They may feel uncertain, incompetent, helpless, overburdened, or taken for granted, leaving them resentful or fearful. Such resistance manifests in many ways – reduction in output, employee churn, higher transfer requests, hostility, and slowdown strikes.

How to deal with employee resistance?

Identify the resistors. Change impacts some more than others. Pre-emptively identifying these groups of people can help you start off the transition on a positive note. First, establish why the change is needed. Start from the current, steady-state and articulate what the transition phase looks like and how it maps to the final desired state. And most important, articulate how these groups can win better through it.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Use focus groups, helplines, team meetings, and other tools to keep communication channels open. Gather data on employee concerns and organize smaller or high-level meetings to discuss these openly and fairly.

Listen. Two-way communication is essential. Employees that are genuinely listened to are more likely to be receptive to your ideas of change. Allow employees to voice their concerns in a non-judgmental setting and pay attention to what they say. The human side of organizations is sometimes more important than resources and infrastructure, and it helps to remember this when faced with resistance to change.

Create change agents. Build a group of agents tasked with communicating the change and how it affects assignments, roles, schedules, and career paths. Use visual representations of what success will look like – for employees and the organization – to build employee confidence in the new vision.

Employee resistance isn’t the only type of resistance companies could face. Change programs may have a ripple effect on other stakeholder groups like partners, vendors, leadership teams, and even customers – each of which needs distinct redressal methods. How organizations deal with the discomfort of change distinguishes successful programs from those that falter. An approach based on compassion, learning, and communication helps serve the interests of both people and the business.

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