How Leaders Can Help Employees Accept Technology Changes

By Dori Meinert Jul 1, 2016
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When rolling out a new technology system, senior leaders often ride a high wave of expectations only to see it quickly dissolve into a pool of employee frustration and distrust. 

That new software was supposed to save workers time, allowing them to be more productive in other areas. But employees complained that it was too complicated or didn’t work right—and they created workarounds instead of learning how to use the technology or waiting for glitches to be fixed.

This scenario is a common one. 

It’s not that technology is evil per se (although some employees may beg to differ).

“What’s evil is when we think that technology is going to make everything better and, in the process of implementing it, we railroad people,” says Chris Laping, former senior vice president for business transformation and chief information officer for Red Robin Gourmet Burgers.

Sometimes senior leaders blame employees for being resistant to change, he says, when in fact the executives haven’t laid the proper groundwork. For example, instead of explaining why the new system is needed or how it will make workers’ jobs easier, leaders force more time-consuming training on employees who already feel overtaxed. 

“It’s like [the saying], ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves,’ ” jokes Laping. 

After 25 years in the technology field, Laping concludes that the problem lies not with the end-user but with those who are driving the change. Leaders can increase the odds of a successful change initiative by taking steps to influence employees’ ability to absorb change, says Laping, author of People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem (PBT Press, 2016). Those steps include the following:

• Let employees know why the change is needed. Workers need to understand what the goal is before they can accept a new program. 

“When people have clarity on the ‘why,’ it creates this meaningful action. It engages people,” Laping says. “People want to make a difference at work. They want to have a purpose. When you don’t have the ‘why,’ you have people who aren’t connected, who aren’t getting excited.”

After approving a change, business leaders too often stop focusing on the “why” and focus solely on the “what,” which can create confusion and frustration, he says.

• Keep it simple. No IT person sets out to create an overly complicated system. But when executives and project leaders don’t set clear goals and aren’t involved during the design process, they may end up with a system that creates problems for the end-users, Laping says. If they’re interested in enabling change, they should focus on the end-users’ needs and embrace simplicity, he says.

• Give people adequate time to become adept with the new system. That will increase their receptiveness to it. Many times, executives expect employees to tackle new systems right away, not accounting for their busy schedules, which can create resentment.

• Rely less on formal communications. Corporate communications can raise awareness of a project, which is an important first step. But if there are too many overly broad corporate memos, workers may tune them out. They want to hear from trusted peers how the change will affect them and their specific jobs.

• Provide opportunities for employees to teach each other. When workers become proficient, encourage them to share their mastery of the new skills with their colleagues. Employees will be more engaged and motivated as a result, he says.

• Encourage feedback, and take action on it. Some say the worst thing a leader can do is fail to listen to workers, but Laping suggests that “the worst thing is to ask them how they feel about something and then proceed to do nothing about it.”

• Provide support. Executives often focus on the initial implementation of a technology project but don’t factor in the need for annual maintenance or user support. “How we support people with change today influences how they’re going to feel about the next big change we roll out,” he says.   

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

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