Change Resistance is not a new concept. In preparing for this blog, I looked into when the term first came into existence. There’s an HBR article from 1969 that references a study from 1948 about Change Resistance. I found the study and article fascinating, knowing that we’re just building on something that’s been around since the 1940’s, and that not much has changed.
Today, a staple of Change Management programs are specific plans or activities to capture and manage “Change Resistance”. While knowing what change resistance is and how to manage it is important, is there more we could be doing for our organizations when it appears?
In this article, we’ll discuss:
What Change Resistance is, and when and how it shows up
Typical Change Resistance Management approaches
And finally, why and how we can do better than just “managing” resistance
What is Change Resistance?
First of all, what is “Change Resistance”? Unfortunately, when organizations go through change and see behaviour that is not “positive” or “helpful”, it is often labelled as “resistance”. This is why there seems to be an “epidemic” of change resistance out there. And unfortunately, the word resistance implies a host of negative things.
Let’s take a step back and talk about how a change initiative usually plays out when formal Change Management is in place. Typically, a Change Impact Assessment is done to understand the potential effects of a planned change to all stakeholders. This should lead to a change plan of some kind, including adjusting roles/responsibilities/jobs, planning for training, communications, or even adjusting the design of the change.
However, you’ll never capture everything, especially down to the individual level (this is why we like to say “Change happens at the individual level”). For example, how is it possible to determine from an assessment that a particular employee is worried that a potential role change will affect their chances of a promotion?
That being said, Change Resistance can happen at any point in time. No sooner than the words “We’re implementing a new system...” are uttered, people may react positively or negatively.
But let’s assume people are reacting to real information and details on how a change might affect them. At this point, you may start to see what we call “Change Resistance”. PROSCI’s descriptions of what change resistance looks like in an organization is a good place to start understanding how to recognize it:
Emotion – Fear, loss, sadness, anger, anxiety, frustration, depression, focus on self
Disengagement – Silence, ignoring communications, indifference, apathy, low morale
Work impact – Reduced productivity/efficiency, non-compliance, absenteeism, mistakes
Acting out – Conflict, arguments, sabotage; overbearing, aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior
Negativity – Rumors/gossip, miscommunication, complaining, focus on problems, celebrating failure
Avoidance – Ignoring the change, reverting to old behaviors, workarounds, abdicating responsibilities
Building barriers – Excuses, counterapproaches, recruiting dissenters, secrecy, breakdown in trust
Controlling – Asking lots of questions, influencing outcomes, defending current state, using status
While we see that these are all fairly negative (and in some cases toxic) behaviours, the natural next question is: Why? The other natural question that occurs to us is: Are these reactions representative of an individual’s or group’s behaviours in other circumstances as well? We get at this a little later. Managing Change Resistance
Once we’ve identified specific instances of resistance, we seek to “manage” them in order to ensure adoption of the planned change. Here’s a simplistic take on typically what happens next: deeper interviews or discussions with stakeholders are held to understand the root cause of the various instances of resistance. And here are some typical examples of what might be learned, and how we might respond:
Missed impacts that will affect users: Change plan, rollout plan, or design is modified
Lack of understanding of the change: More communication to educate stakeholders, training to support ongoing learning
Negative impacts to stakeholders or no benefits to them: Leaders and managers are engaged to discuss how to support/counsel those who have “nothing in it for them”*
*This point is worth a little sidebar. Its easy to say that you will share the “What’s In it For Me” (WIFM) in order to obtain buy-in, but the reality is, often in changes that drive real value for organizations, there are people who will only “lose” as a result of the change. Leadership needs to tackle this head on because this “loss” is often the factor that is enabling the benefits of the change.
To be blunt, just search LinkedIn for change resistance and you’ll find a raft of approaches or tactics to manage different forms of resistance and get buy-in. Of course, an engaged Change Professional will have a toolbelt of approaches and tactics to manage the resistance.
At this point, I’m often asking myself what could we have done better? How could we have helped more? How the resistance manifests, in our experience, often points to some other institutional or cultural weaknesses. Here’s some examples:
Signs of Change Resistance
Underlying Cultural Pain Point
People ignoring communications and not responding to queries
Is this an acceptable behaviour?
People spreading misinformation
How does management and leadership deal with this on a day-to-day basis?
People not living up to commitments
How are people performance managed?
No one asks questions or provides feedback, then complain to others
Why are they not communicating to their managers or supervisors?
People distraught and worried about how they will be affected and acting out inappropriately
What is their relationship with their manager/supervisor where this can’t be discussed?
Are their managers/supervisors able to support them and manage this situation?
We might be able to guess the answers to these questions, but it’s important to realize that these are much larger challenges that will take organizations time to sort out. Sometimes how a project addresses the issues are just band-aid solutions so we can keep the project moving along, as opposed to trying to solve the root cause. From a Change Management standpoint, we’re frankly hoping for compliance at best, in order to get to the end of the initiative. (Ignoring for now the need to ensure change sticks, but that’s a whole other topic to explore.)
What Can we do Better?
Use Change Resistance as a Mirror The leaders who’ve made the most of the change they’ve put their organization through are those who’ve used the exercise to take a good hard look at themselves and their culture. Here’s a quick self-diagnostic:
What is it about my _____ that fosters the Change Resistance behaviours we’re seeing?
Employee Empowerment / Agency
Why is this important? If this exercise points you clearly to areas to be improved, then we think its incumbent on you to start now. As Harbingers, we know that the expression “change is constant” is proving itself outdated. Change is actually accelerating. Never mind the changes you’ve decided are important for your organization, what about external change? Covid? ChatGPT? Recession?
The most fit organizations will be the most nimble. That means your people need to be set up successfully to adapt to change quickly. Being nimble means being resilient.
As the old adage says, it’s the journey not the destination. Going through the change is, in of itself, an opportunity for your organization to evolve. Paul Lawrence, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School puts it best, he says “When resistance does appear, it should not be thought of as something to be overcome. Instead, it can best be thought of as a useful red flag—a signal that something is going wrong.”.
For my fellow Change Management Professionals out there, I hope you are, if you’re not already doing so, encouraging or challenging your clients to take look at the bigger opportunity when they see Change Resistance. It’s not always an easy conversation, but one I think those who are fortunate enough to make a living doing what we’re doing, should be committed to having.
Co-Founder and Partner