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Five Tips to Help Staff Adapt to Change in the Lab

Addressing the key reasons why people resist necessary changes

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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All labs face the need to change. Nothing stays the same forever. Managing change can be a difficult challenge for lab managers who must both envision the improvements and overcome the resistance to change among staff. Understanding the human element of change will help lab managers better understand the sources of resistance and provide positive ways to lead and execute change. 

Most people visualize the risk associated with change more clearly than they appreciate the potential benefits. They worry much more about what might be lost during the change than about what might be gained. For these reasons, most staff resist change, and few people thrive in constant change.

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People like stability. It is predictable, comfortable, and understood. Even when the current situation doesn’t work well, the issues are known and often, the workarounds have been learned. To better position your lab for change, the lab manager needs to overcome the organizational inertia to change. Here are five tips to help your staff overcome their resistance to change.

Start with why

Most people will resist doing anything until they understand why it is important. As Simon Sinek explained in Start with Why, it is very important to explain why the change is required. Most people won’t simply accept the change at face value. Clearly explaining why the change is needed is a vital step of an effective change management process. If you can’t simply, clearly, and concisely explain why the change is important and needed, you don’t understand it well enough, or it isn’t sufficiently beneficial for the lab.

Growth starts with discomfort

At the Centers for Creative Leadership, they teach that there is no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone. Enabling change in the lab requires that staff understand that discomfort is part of both their development and the lab’s improvement. Staying comfortable means falling behind, which leads to financial insecurity for the lab and lack of personal development for the staff. The lab manager needs to select the right changes so that the discomfort is viewed as a necessary step toward improvement.

Build engagement

Disengaged staff aren’t interested in improvement for the lab. They are simply collecting a paycheck following instructions. Improving engagement levels brings many benefits, like higher productivity, improved quality, fewer safety incidents, and greater retention. Another benefit of an engaged staff is that they are emotionally supportive of the lab, its mission, purpose, and stakeholders. An engaged staff can appreciate the benefits promised by the change and are more willing to address the challenges required to achieve those benefits.

Practice generative leadership

Generative leadership is about looking for new possibilities for action and growth. One of the key habits of a generative leader is to ask why something in the lab is done that way. This way of questioning how the work is accomplished leads to opportunities for change and improvement. It also delves deeper into responses like “we’ve always done it that way,” or “it’s worked just fine in the past.” Generative leaders look for improvements and changes that benefit the whole lab. They are not bogged down by not invented here syndrome. It doesn’t matter who makes the suggestion. All good ideas can be addressed.

Put a bandit on the train

One effective approach to addressing staff resistance to a change is to include a bandit on the train. As explained by Charles Prather, author of A Manager’s Guide to Fostering Innovation and Creativity in Teams, the bandit is a member of staff who opposes the change. Adding that individual to the team that is discussing and planning the change enables the team to receive direct feedback about perceived issues. Participating in the team allows the bandit to listen to all of the discussion. In many cases, the bandit learns enough about the change to support it. The bandit is then very effective at converting other resisters to support the change.

Change can be difficult. Many of the issues around change management derive from staff resistance to change. Developing a better understanding of how to influence staff to be more receptive to change can make the change management process easier and more productive. As your lab experiences successful change and the associated benefits, you can develop a culture where change and continuous improvement are respected and easier to accomplish.

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