Overcoming Resistance to Employee Involvement

By Peter B. Grazier

Originally published in EI Network December 1, 1993

It seems that this topic just never goes away. I have just returned from New Orleans where I conducted a seminar on overcoming resistance to employee involvement (EI), and was once again surprised (and dismayed) that we are still struggling with moving it forward in our organizations.

Most of the attendees had some role in spreading employee involvement within their organizations, and most were frustrated to say the least. What is it about our workplace today that seems to resist movement to a concept that has proven itself over and over?

As I have been working with organizations over the years to create participative work environments, this question has been central to my successes and failures. If one can understand the dynamics of change, both personal and organizational, the probability of success will be greatly enhanced.

What I have learned is that there are three basic elements in creating successful change:

  • The desire to change
  • The ability to change
  • The permission to change (for those in organizations)
  • 1. The Desire to Change
    Most humans will not change their beliefs, habits, or behaviors unless they are motivated to do so. Most will not change, even if change is for the better, unless there is come compelling reason. As long as the perceived rewards of staying as we are remain greater than the rewards of changing, we will likely stay as we are. Or, conversely, as long as the perceived risks of changing are greater than the risks for staying the same, we will be unlikely to change.

    I was recently given the below cartoon which, to me, symbolizes this concept perfectly in terms of today’s changing workplace.

    “I trusted him more when he had a whip!”

    The supervisor or, symbolically, the slave master, is attempting to change (humanize) his management style with his “Slave of the Month” program. Meanwhile, one slave says to the other, “I trusted him more when he had a whip!”

    Not only does the slave master have difficulty changing, but the slaves are also feeling some discomfort, even when the change is beneficial to them! Our desire to hold on to things that are familiar and, hence, comfortable is strong.

    Resource Tip: Resistance to change can be lessened by using an instrument such as Mastering the Change Curve.

    Of the three elements required for change, my bias is that desire is most important. Little happens if there is no real motivation to change. And strong motivation frequently makes up for shortcomings in the other two. A central question, then, is how do we create this desire to change?

    First we must create awareness of the need to change. What are the compelling reasons to move away from the familiar and comfortable and move to something different and perhaps uncomfortable?

    In today’s competitive world economy, more and more people are becoming aware of the need for improving the way or organizations work. However, if we really want to turn up the heat on change, we must discuss internally the specific challenges facing our organization.

    Who is our competition? What are they doing? What new products and services are they adding? Is the market for our product or service expanding or contracting? What are our costs and revenues per employee versus our competition’s? Will our products be subject to new environmental controls? What will rapidly expanding telecommunications technology mean to us and our existing work processes? Can we reduce our overhead expenses to match those considered best in our industry? Could we really become “paperless?” How could we reduce our basic work process by 10 steps this month? How could we improve turnaround time by 90%?

    It is my opinion that the more profitable an organization is, the more creative it must be in creating the appropriate challenge. One organization I worked with wanted to increase the rate of implementation of employee involvement, which for several years had been painfully slow. The company was old, well established in its market, and experiencing continued earnings growth. What, I asked myself, would provide some motivation for these people to move forward?

    By chance, I came across an article discussing one of their strongest competitors. The article related performance data of the competitor showing, for example, that its revenues per employee were twice that of my client! I shared this information with the management team and they were shocked by the numbers. They could now see the potential threat posed by a competitor with such strong financial performance.

    In this case, the risk of inaction became a greater motivator than the discomfort of changing to a participative style of management.

    Strategies to Develop Awareness
    From a practical point of view, how can this type of information and resulting dialogue be generated?

  • Develop a proactive organization newsletter that discusses issues relevant to its future.
  • Initiate management dialogue sessions with other managers, supervisors, and employees.
  • Conduct training sessions that deal with the need to change.
  • Use case studies that demonstrate what happens when organizations don’t respond to changes in their industry or environment: GM, Sears, IBM, Xerox (early 80’s), and others.
  • Conduct book study sessions at the work group level using, for example, books that show compelling reasons for change.1
    Ask people (perhaps in a small group format) “What would happen if we don’t change?”
  • Bring in examples of competitor’s products and discuss the implications.
  • Put up a master bulletin board in a central area and invite employees to post articles on the industry, competitors, challenges, and so forth.
  • Conduct a Future Search Conference, (see section entitled Large Scale Involvement in the Facilitation section of our bookstore) to seriously discuss the future of the organization.
  • Encourage senior managers to “wander” frequently throughout the organization asking appropriate questions regarding the need to change.
  • Change reward systems to align with those behaviors the organization wants to expand. For example, performance evaluations should reward a participative style for leaders at all levels and active involvement in organization improvement for all employees.
  • Again, the purpose of these strategies is to create some discomfort or dissatisfaction with the status quo–a realization that to stay as we are is more of a threat than to move forward with new concepts.

    The above strategies make one major assumption, however, and that is that management is not already destroying employee motivation and allegiance with destructive dictates and mandates. For example, those organizations prone to laying off employees at the first sign of financial weakness will find it difficult, if not impossible, to implement and sustain any form of participative management. A layoff as a first alternative to cost reduction contradicts the notion of participative management. Employees will find it hard to commit fully to the organization and its mission, goals, and ideals.

    2. The Ability to Change
    If the motivation for change exists, then people will need some assistance developing the skills to change. Ignorant of the dynamics of human behavior, we assume that once people understand the need for change, they will miraculously move in that direction.

    However, what holds us back is our ingrained beliefs and resulting behaviors. For example, I may want to become a participative manager but all my previous training has conditioned me to be controlling and directive and, clearly, the decision maker.2 And down deep inside, I might really have doubts about this employee involvement stuff. To change my beliefs and ultimately my behaviors significantly, I will need some help.

    Strategies to Develop Ability
    Join the Association for Quality and Participation and tap into a valuable network of people going through the same change.
    Get on mail lists for other organizations providing support services dealing with change in today’s workplace.3
    Define a clear vision of the new work environment. In specific terms, what does employee involvement, empowerment, and self-direction mean in our organization?
    Example: Employee Involvement Vision

  • All employees engaged daily in improving work processes and solving problems
  • 50 ideas per year per employee for improving the work and the workplace
  • Managers and supervisors encouraging and supporting new ideas on a daily basis
  • Work teams meeting on a weekly basis to expand and enhance process improvement innovations
  • Example: Empowerment and Self-Direction Vision (partial list for example only)

  • Supervisor trains group members, delegates daily work group skills, and focuses on longer/wider-range value-added work
  • work group sets and measures its own standards of performance
  • The work group determines its own training needs
  • The work group deals with its customers
  • The work group sets and monitors its own budget
  • The work group operates without daily direct supervision
  • Peer evaluations are used to improve individual performance
  • The work group interviews and selects/hires new group members
  • The vision serves as a clear picture of what the organization will look like in the future.

  • Attend training on the new skills required by managers, supervisors, and front-line employees.
  • Publicize “success” stories as they occur in the organization. This helps people see what the organization wants of them.
  • Attend specialty seminars, conferences, symposiums, and so forth that discuss the new work concepts.
  • Visit other organizations that are further along in the process and learn from them.
  • Invite guest speakers in from other organizations to relate what they have learned about change and the new work concepts.
  • Contact video services and search for videos that discuss or model involvement, empowerment, team, and quality concepts.
  • Resource Tip: The changing roles of supervisors and front-line employees in the new system is demonstrated in the video A Team Leader’s Day.

  • Conduct structured dialogues where managers, supervisors, union representatives, or employees can discuss safely their fears and concerns with the new concepts. Why might they hold back? …and what has to happen for them to move forward? Small group formats work best.
  • Strive to simplify the entire improvement (quality) process. A bureaucratic process will cave in under its own weight.
  • Resource Tip: Simplification of process improvement and quick-change concepts is demonstrated in the video The Winner’s Circle.

  • Conduct a management session on understanding the organization’s beliefs. Do the beliefs support the changes necessary for progress, or will they hold the organization in its current system?
  • Because our prior training and conditioning is such a significant barrier to our ability to change, we need to take some very proactive steps (such as the strategies listed above). Our learned behavior is like a spring that pulls us back to a comfortable position whenever we stretch a little too far. Breaking free of that spring is difficult, but possible, if we take conscious actions that eventually replace the old behaviors with new ones.

    3. The Permission to Change
    Finally there is the issue of permission. When a change is personal, we only have to give ourselves permission to change. But when the change is in an organizational context, permission must be granted by those in power.

    I may have the desire to change, and I may have the knowledge and ability to change. But if I work in an environment that doesn’t enable me to change, very little will happen. Desire and ability are there, but permission is not.

    I am told frequently by seminar participants that they are constrained by those above them and they don’t know what to do. Here are some suggestions:

  • I could do nothing and wait for my organization to get serious about improvement and involvement concepts.
  • I could learn more about the new workplace concepts and begin to discuss them with others, particularly those above me.
  • I cold lobby my bosses to take seriously these concepts of involvement and improvement to secure a future for our organization.
  • I could invite my bosses to a seminar, AQP local chapter meeting, conference, or other session.
  • I could ask for permission to experiment with the concepts.
  • I could buy my bosses copies of the book Walk the Talk. (Depending on my comfort level with this idea, I may want to give them anonymously.)
  • I could send articles regarding our industry and its competition to my bosses, to entice them to look further into change.
  • I could secretly put my bosses on the mail lists of organizations advocating change.
  • I could begin making changes (without permission) within the confines of my workspace and see what happens. A front-line supervisor that wants to experiment with team and improvement concepts might begin by quietly involving his or her people in improving their work processes. Documenting any improvements would then validate the concepts. (Makes use of the important principle: It is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.)
  • I could send a letter to the CEO encouraging senior management to look seriously at improvement and involvement concepts. (Requires a high level of confidence and risk taking.)
  • I could ask to make a presentation to the senior management team and attempt to influence their thinking about the new workplace concepts. (Also requires a high level of confidence and risk taking.)
  • I could assemble a group of others in the organization who also feel strongly about the need to improve our work and operate within this group to promote change.
  • The point of this list is to show that if you work in an organization that does not yet support the new workplace concepts, all is not lost. There is probably something on this list that would fit your personal comfort level. Too many of us throw up our hands and say “What can I do?” rather than “Here’s what I can do.”

    The question of permission is a very personal one that we must answer for ourselves.

    In this article I have tried to address the ongoing concern of how to overcome resistance to employee involvement, empowerment, self-direction, and improvement concepts. This is an issue we all struggle with, and I wish there were a simple answer. What I have learned is that no one strategy will work for everyone. The reasons we resist change are very personal and unique, so to change the thinking of many people in an organization will probably require a variety of approaches.

    1. A good resource for identifying such books: Theodore Kinni, The Business Reader, P.O. Box 3627, Williamsburg, VA 23187. Phone (757) 258-4746 Email: [email protected]

    2. See Supervisors in Transition

    3. U.S. Department of Labor, American Productivity and Quality Center, Center for the Study of Work Teams

    4. Contact the Association for Quality and Participation at 513-381-1959 for a list of such companies.

    Additional Resources:


  • Embracing Change
  • Overcoming Resistance to Employee Involvement, Teams, and Collaboration (call 888-672-1120 for more information)
  • Books:

  • Caught in the Middle: A Leadership Guide for Partnership in the Workplace
  • Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Unconventional Strategies That Build Support for Change