Overcoming Resistance to Implementing NZ's New Health and Safety Regulations

Dealing With Resistance To Change

Most organisations make two fatal errors when it comes to dealing with resistance to change. First, they under-estimate the strength of current patterns that are comfortable and familiar to employees. Second, they also under-estimate what will be required to change those patterns and deal with the automatic, though sometimes subtle, fight or flight responses that occur when employees interpret changes as threats.

Our brains are hard wired to do three things:

  • Match patterns
  • Resist or fight any threats to survival
  • Respond first with emotion before logic

So how can you get employees to rewire their brains, and assist new thinking that will support change initiatives?

Neuro-scientists can show, using brain scans, that rational decision-making is deeply intertwined with emotions. They also confirm that we are primarily emotional beings and secondarily rational – emotions trump rationality.

Unless an organisation accepts and addresses this reality, managing change with an emphasis on logic (information delivery) not emotion will not reduce resistance to organisational change.

Does Your Organisation (Inadvertently) Reinforce Fear Of Change?

Here’re some questions to reflect on: 

How does your organisation reinforce people's fears about, or enthusiasm for, change?

How do you currently support them to change their thinking?

What are you doing to encourage changeability / agility as a skill within your organisation?

There may be inadvertent subconscious patterns within your organisation that invoke your employees' critter state (suspicious defensiveness and resistance) e.g.

Do you only call staff into your office to deliver bad news? If so, don't be surprised if they are defensive even before they get into your office if you call them in for another kind of meeting.

Does the boss only communicate to announce bad news and say that change is on the way?

Does a company meeting usually mean bad news and more work?

Even in these examples it’s easy to see how employees may be on the defensive regardless of the real facts when they hear a message from the CEO, or a company meeting is called.

What Can You Do?

Let me make a few suggestions. Health and Safety consciousness needs to be woven into the fabric of your organisation, so you need every person to be mindful of, and proactively protective against, potential hazards.

Now this could be pretty challenging when the previous approach had put safety responsibility in the hands of only a few people (‘Not my job’). You now want active engagement by all and for this state of mind to become BAU (business as usual).

My suggestion to counter inevitable resistance (in this particular change initiative) is to steer away from threat; go ‘light’, not ‘heavy’. You want to create a positive emotional response to the H&S changes. Yes, penalty details do need to be shared for awareness purposes, but let that recede to the back, not be the foreground focus.

‘Heavy’ emphasises the penalties, prosecutions and fines for non-compliance and the consequences of that for them (individually) and for the company… the pain / threat approach. This has only a short-term motivational impact and ultimately deadens thinking.

Think ‘Game’

You want innovation, pro-activity and mindfulness from all your people, so think ‘light’ – think ‘game’ (as in a game of rugby).

The basics are: there is a clear end result you want – does everyone one know what it is? There are rules – so what are they and how well do the players know them? And there has to be a referee who will ensure the rules are adhered to, for the good of all.

But also the players have designated positions, and they know what they are; they play to their strengths (while never neglecting any fatal flaws); there is a score-board (for instant awareness of progress); there is playing to where the ball will be (not where it is now); there are celebrations (to emphasise the wins); and there are match play reflections (open peer review where anyone can be challenged).

And it is all underpinned by team camaraderie (‘we’re all in this together’).

This ‘Game’ approach could be expressed in a variety of ways:

  • Morning toolbox meetings – “Break into two teams, there is a chocolate fish for the team who can tell me the five hazards of…
  • Reviews – “This situation over here, how could we improve the H&S even more?” not “What did you get wrong?”
  • Sharing stories – especially stories of learnings from near misses and the behaviours that turned them around; or how good processes were made better. Then evaluate the stories for the patterns / behaviours that can be replicated.

Cautioning Comment

The usual approach to any sort of change is ‘top down’ i.e. done to the staff. Even the suggestions above can be ‘top down’. Be careful here.

What’s most effective in helping people accept change is ‘bottom up’ i.e. done with the staff. This is where staff are openly included and their input actively sought. So how can you include your staff more in the changes?

The silver chalice of any change is when staff proactively drive the changes themselves; it’s no longer the lead-team dragging (pulling, enticing, ‘selling’) the change. This is when you know it’s deeply embedded into your culture.

But don't be dismayed if this seems to take longer than you think.

The good news us that our thinking can be retrained, but remember that new habits take time and many repetitions before they become our natural choice and BAU.