Combatting resistance to change in veterinary organisations

As we step over the halfway point of the calendar year it is obvious that change remains a major topic. The COVID pandemic has prompted new biosecurity protocols such as social distancing and telehealth, which have to be managed alongside the soaring demand on veterinary services. It has been eye-opening to study Organisational Behaviour whilst working as a casual veterinarian and experiencing how different clinics have been implementing change, both successfully and disastrously, in a COVID-affected world. Anecdotally it would seem that the increased pressure on veterinary clinics has amplified cracks in pre-COVID veterinary protocols, prompting managers to instigate change.

Resistance to change is a major issue for clinic leaders and supervisors however veterinary schools fall short of teaching leadership skills as a core part of the curriculum. With change and progress in any team being a part working life, knowing how to manage change in organisations is a skill that is increasingly in demand.

Managers and leaders in organisations can lead change in many ways. A small clinic may have a centralised power structure with a head veterinarian and head nurse who make changes without discussing with other staff. In contrast a leader of a multi-vet practice may raise an issue at a meeting for all team members to voice their opinion and solve the problem together in a broader, inclusive team building strategy.

Wherever there is change it is human nature that resistance will follow. For some people, resistance is an obstacle to be overcome with full force, a ‘take it or leave it’ approach, though considering the veterinary shortage in Australia this knee jerk reaction is a poorly thought-out strategy. When working with people it is important to remember that everyone will have an opinion. If you are the decision maker for change in your practice you should be aware that whilst not everyone will agree, using the right methods you can achieve the desired outcome without too many hiccups.

No doubt every individual reading this has been in a situation where someone at the top has made a decision without consulting staff. Individuals taken by surprise routinely react with panic and immediately begin to imagine all the ways in which things will go wrong. When change is resisted through this panic it is important for individuals driving change to focus on the resistance as task conflict (problems with the task itself) rather than relationship conflict (blaming the person resisting as having negative personal characteristics such as being lazy or irrational). Focusing on the task at hand, not personal qualities, helps avoid escalation of the conflict. A task conflict perspective also allows managers to consider that employees have not been sufficiently prepared for the change and take steps to address the discrepancy.

Employees may resist change based on many different factors including:

  • Personal values and beliefs.
  • Not understanding the need for change or urgency.
  • Lack of confidence to be able to change or believing that the change will have negative outcomes such as poorer working conditions or lower pay.
  • Fear of the unknown. If employees don’t understand the likelihood of positive or negative outcomes from proposed changes, they are much more likely to imagine the worst. Uncertainty over future job security and changing job responsibilities generates negative emotions such as worry, compared to the present where risks are known and controllable. The veterinary industry ranks high on uncertainty avoidance and is very risk averse, therefore staff should be expected to be uncomfortable with an unknown outcome. Veterinarians in general like to know in minute detail how a day is going to run and be prepared for any variation which may compromise patient care.  
  • Incongruent organisational systems. If changes will impact rewards, information systems, patterns of authority and career paths negatively then employees are less likely to want to push ahead. For example, if the proposed changes will make it difficult for an employee to progress in their desired career direction, then the motivation for that employee will drop dramatically in moving towards that change goal.

Change, based on Lewin’s force field analysis model in the Organisational Behaviour literature, is largely driven by increasing the forces for change and weakening the restraining forces which are preventing change. At the end of this period when change has been implemented, the change is ‘frozen’ so that the organisation stops rolling forward. Driving forces to cause change include motivating employees through reward or punishment, however punishment alone is typically unsuccessful as it leads to an equal and opposing increase in restraining forces preventing the change from occurring.

Six of the main strategies for weakening restraining forces and reducing resistance to change are:

  • Communication. This is the highest valued tool in change management. If the organisation cannot communicate the specific changes to be made and why they need to be made resistance will always be encountered. Fear of the unknown and perceived negative outcomes are powerful components of resistance to change and need to be addressed from the very outset of a change process. Communicating strong reasons for change can generate the urgency to transition so that employees understand why the change is needed. In addition, leaders can motivate employees by being upfront and transparent about external threats and opportunities which make the change essential. Teams who receive orders from above and are kept in the dark about why change is needed are more than likely to feel isolated and undervalued when management makes changes that will directly affect them. The largest amount of resistance occurs when management makes changes and teams are forced to accept the outcome, without prior consideration. Teams may feel sidelined and distanced from the organisation instead of coming together and holding strong in times of uncertainty. It unfortunately still remains more common for staff to be notified of a change strategy after it has been selected and begun to be implemented, instead of being involved in the very beginning.
  • Learning. If the change involves employees taking on different roles or completing different tasks it is imperative that training is provided to increase employee confidence to be able to perform better after implementation. Knowledge can increase employee self-efficacy and their ability to function effectively after the change, making them more likely to accept and commit.
  • Employee involvement. Employees who take part in the decision-making process feel more personal commitment and responsibility to making changes succeed as they are a part of the team building it. When employees feel as if a decision has been made regardless of their opinion they can easily become disinterested in the outcome or its successful implementation. Another benefit of involving employees at the beginning of the change management process is that more people may provide a greater number of creative alternatives to choose from.
  • Stress management. Any change in the running of a veterinary clinic is a stressful endeavour. Uncertainty about the future can lead to high levels of anxiety and a preference to interpret problems as clear signals that the change will never be successful. Chronic stress has clear negative effects on staff health and wellbeing. Communication, employee involvement and learning have all been shown to decrease stress during the change process  however it is not enough. Stress management practices should be also be implemented, such as the provision of support networks for employees or fostering skills in resilience prior to and during the change itself.  
  • Negotiation. Where resistance is strongly held, management may try to negotiate or promise certain rewards in exchange for compliance with the proposed plan. This tactic can be used for individuals who will otherwise be disadvantaged from the change and require some type of benefit to move forward. This agreement, however, indicates only compliance with and not commitment to, the change itself. Therefore, in the long term may be susceptible to reverting to non-compliance. 
  • Coercion. Coercion can involve employee punishment such as and threatening dismissal, frequent checking of behaviour to monitor compliance and repetitive reminders of obligations. This method is only to be used as a last resort when speed is necessary and other methods have proved ineffective. In a veterinary context, especially in the current veterinary shortage it would be an oversight to fire employees if appropriate replacements are not able to be hired. The dismissal of staff is also likely to cause dramatic decreases in staff morale and workplace productivity if the changes are not widely supported.

These strategies for working through resistance can be applied to any group of people, regardless of the size of the veterinary business. I would like to again underline the importance of communication; lack of vertical communication, from management to subordinates, or horizontal communication, across different levels of staff, can do enormous damage to a clinic or organisation even if the most effective change management strategy is produced. Change is inevitable however successful change is highly dependent on a deeper understanding of human behaviour. 

Nicole Hart BSc, DVM

Nicole Hart is a 2016 DVM graduate veterinarian working in Melbourne. She has returned to study sociology and positive psychology at the University of Melbourne and looks forward to bringing another perspective to the veterinary profession.

Source: McShane SL, Olekalns M, Newman AH, Martin A. Organisational Behaviour : Emerging Knowledge, Global Insights. 6e, Asia-Pacific edition. ed. McGraw-Hill Education; 2019. 

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