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Resistance to Change and How to Deal With It


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The new financial management system was installed, new procedures distributed and office staff trained. And yet, the number of accounting errors had increased. Does this sound familiar? Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and managers come to naught – or worse still, sends progress backwards. Even if it isn’t obvious, perhaps your people are resisting the change.

Why People Resist Change

No matter how well designed and planned your change program is, not everyone will be singing its praises. People resist change for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from a straightforward intellectual disagreement over facts to deep-seated psychological prejudices.

Some of these reasons may include:

  • belief that the change initiative is a temporary fad
  • belief that fellow employees or managers are incompetent
  • loss of authority or control
  • loss of status or social standing
  • lack of faith in their ability to learn new skills
  • feeling of change overload (too much too soon)
  • lack of trust in or dislike of managers
  • loss of job security
  • loss of family or personal time
  • feeling that the organization is not entitled to the extra effort

For some people resisting change, there may be multiple reasons. Adding to this complexity is the fact that sometimes the stated reason hides the real more deeply personal reason. You will also need to recognize that people work through a psychological change process as they give up the old and come to either embrace or reject the new.

Typically, they may experience an initial denial, then begin to realize that the change cannot be ignored. Strong feelings may emerge, such as fear, anger, helplessness and frustration. Finally, the person accepts the change either negatively, with feelings of resignation and complacency, or positively, with renewed enthusiasm to capitalize on the changes. Watch out for people who get “stuck” in one phase. Offer your support. Allow space for people to work through the stages. Give people time to draw breath and listen with empathy.

Reactions to Organizational Change

If you identify and manage resistance to change poorly, you can very quickly strangle your program or, alternatively, slowly and unnoticeably starve it to death. Who are your resisters and how are they resisting?

Change recipients who are dead against the change will either resist overtly, voicing their objections loudly and often, or covertly. Covert resisters operate from the underground, masking their defiance, but posing you a much more serious challenge. There are four basic types of reaction to organizational change. Can you recognize each type in your organizational change program?


These change recipients are intrinsically wedded to the change idea. They may agree dispassionately that the change will be of benefit to the organization, or they may stand to receive some personal gain from the change, such as a guarantee of job security, more status or a higher salary. Enthusiasts will use opportunities to broadcast approval for the change and will try to convince others of its merits. They will also model the new behavior early and will volunteer for membership of teams. These early adopters may also make good choices as trainers and coaches during the implementation process.


Followers range from those that are generally compliant, wishing to take the path of least resistance, to those that are initially reticent to adapt, but eventually do so once they accept the inevitability of the change. These recipients will do what is required, but no more.


Objectors will display their resistance whenever the opportunity arises. They may disrupt meetings, not attend training, take unapproved leave and refuse to carry out instructions. Objectors will continue to use superseded systems and processes when others are taking up the new ways of doing things. They are not averse to arguing with managers and fellow workers and will try to convince others to continue with the old ways. In a unionized environment, resistance can take the form of strikes, lockouts, “work to rule”, legal challenges and boycotts.


Change recipients working for the underground have solid motivations for not making their resistance public. They may fear direct punishment, such as termination or fines, or more personal costs, such as ridicule or loss of status and authority. Managers who are against the change but need to be seen to be in support of it are prime candidates for promoting underground resistance. This style of resistance is, by its nature, always covert and can take many forms. Common among these are falsifying reports, inputting incorrect data, stealing, damaging infrastructure and equipment, using sarcasm, spreading rumors, excessive absences, shoddy work and “go slow”.

Tips for Dealing With Resistance

What can you do now? One thing you can do is work with your key people to construct a Force Field analysis diagram using Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis technique. The Force Field diagram will show the drivers for change on the left of the diagram and the resisters of change on the right, indicating the relative strength of each force. This will give you a powerful indication of where you will need to devote your energies. Here are some pointers for turning resisters into enthusiasts and followers.

* Treating the forces against change is a more productive use of resources than simply reinforcing the forces for change. Choose the most powerful of the restraining forces and devote time and energy to weakening these.

* Think of how you could apply the drivers for change you identified in your analysis to either weakening or eliminating an opposing force.

* Show the fiercest resisters what’s in it for them. Appeal to them either in terms of personal gain (such as status, salary bonus, recognition, etcetera) or loss avoided (such as financial loss or job outplacement prevented).

* Get customers or suppliers to explain to resisters face to face how the current situation disadvantages them in concrete terms.

* Put resisters on teams that allow them to play some decision-making part in the change process, however small.

* Defuse political power plays amongst managers and other employees by conducting broad-based meetings where goals and tactics are openly discussed and introduce processes that leave little room for individual discretion.

* Endeavor to look at the world through the eyes of the resister. Listen openly and honestly to what they are trying to say. Examine your own basic beliefs and assumptions. Through engaging resisters, be prepared to change yourself.

Don’t expect to convert all resisters to supporters. Aim to get enough advocates of your change program for it to achieve its promised benefits. Do this through understanding and engaging the minds and hearts of resisters and by using the tips outlined here. I wish you well on your journey.

2006 © Business Performance Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Vicki Heath is the Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd, a company providing practical online information and resources in a range of business areas, including training and development. Her company's guides, tools and templates assist organizations engage and develop people, manage organizational change and improve project delivery.

Proven experts in the following areas: project management, change management, strategic planning, business process re-engineering, culture surveys, organizational communication, training and development, business performance measurement, employee performance management, leadership and team development, organizational capability and learning, coaching and mentoring.

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2006-09-08 18:39:14 in Employee Articles

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