Organisational Change Management Volume 2

29. Responses to Change, ie Resistance

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. "Resistance to change"is a "catch all"term used to describe anyone who does not change as quickly as we desire. On the other hand,

"...Resistance is the hump in the middle of the road that few leaders know how to get people over. Most managers think all they have to do is reward or threaten their people. Or they hope resistance will simply disappear once they have imposed change. These half measures are like putting on a clean shirt when what you really need is a shower..."

Robert Kriegel et al, 1996

"...we embrace change we control and resist change forced upon us..."

Peter de Jager, 2010

. We resist change if it is done without our consent and we have little or no control over the process

. Resistance is shown by "3 Fs", ie Flight and/or Fight and/or Freeze

- Fight (the prevailing emotion is Anger. Looks like: Aggression, shouting, threatening language, personal attacks to the change agent for organizational changes outside their control, open resistance to the change, complaints, criticism, actively gathering the support of others)

- Flight (the prevailing emotion is Anxiety. Looks like: avoid trainings and meetings regarding the change and ignore the change related to procedures being made, always have excuses for why not, active avoidance, silo strengthening, passive-aggression, absenteeism, quietly get others to 'join the cause' so we can complain about the change and find ways not to do it.

- Freeze (the prevailing emotion is Helplessness (can becomes depression). Looks like 'presenteeism', procrastination, analysis paralysis, busy work instead of value adding, depression, becoming overwhelmed and paying lip service. These people are 'Frozen' so they say 'yes' but do 'nothing'.

NB If one feels under threat, there is a tendency to be "hawkish", ie fight rather than flight or freeze

. People, rather than technology, are the greatest obstacle to change. Complexity of change is the human complexity, not the technical complexity. Need to develop ways to overcome people's anxieties. For example, the greatest challenge to reforming the Australian health system is the attitudue of the medical professionals like doctors. Telstra, in its ReadyCare program where GPs are available over the phone for consultations, has alarmed the medical profession. They claim that Telstra is chasing profits rather than focusing on the best health care solution. Yet, it is expected around 30% of consultations online or over the phone.

. Remember threat response dominates reward. People are more concern of perceived threats, especially to status levels, by asking "why"questions, feedback, solving others' problem(s), etc. Perceived threats are subjective, ie vary from person to person. What can be seen as a threat to one person will not necessarily be seen the same by others.

. Reference point in change is an important concept as people are more concerned about losses than gains. If people anticipate deviations from the reference point, like

- a deterioration, they will resist change

- an improvement, they are less likely to resist

NB Need to be careful that goals do not become reference points as not achieving goals will be perceived like losses

. One of the first questions staff will ask when confronted with a change is

"...Is this change really necessary?..."

Daniel Holt et al, 2003

If the answer is 'no', then a wall of resistance that is very hard to overcome will develop

. Some other statements or attitudes that indicate resistance include

"...Change not needed......status quo is working fine......proposed change does more harm than good......lack of respect for the person responsible for the change......objectionable way of implementing the change......negative attitudes towards the organisation before the opportunity to have inputs into change......change simply adds more work and confusion......change requires more effort than to keep status quo......bad timing of the change......a desire to challenge authority......hearing about change second-hand..."

Dennis Hall, 2006b

. It is important to realize that resistance is normal and something most of us do to protect our integrity. It is a potential source of energy, as well as information, about the change effort and direction. In general, going with the resistance ‐ not condemning it but trying to understand its source and motives ‐ can open up possibilities for realizing how to influence change.

. Resisters can act like early warning signs as they can highlight flaws in the change process

. Change pushes our brain into the most energy expensive area, ie executive function. The brain prefers not to go there as it will use too much of its available mental energy

. The concepts of neuroscience (the study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain) and its integration with psychology (the study of human mind and human behaviour) can help explain why organisational change, etc is resisted and so difficult to achieve. For example, there are 6 parts to this

i) change is pain as it provokes sensations of physical discomfort. This is linked with

- the nature of human memory and its relationship with conscious attention. Working memory (prefrontal cortex) is where new perceptions and ideas are compared with stored information, ie trying to find linkages, associations, etc with stored information. In contrast, the basal ganglia is involved with routine, established activities and thus requires less energy than the working memory that fatigues more quickly and holds only a limited amount of information at any one time. The basal ganglia has been described as the habit centre of the brain. Therefore changing routines/habits, etc requires much effort and can result in people feeling uncomfortable.

- basic brain functioning ‐ the brain is very good at detecting the perceived differences between expectations and actuality, ie errors. These errors produce much stronger outbursts of neural firing than those caused by the familiar stimuli. These errors signals are generated by the orbital frontal cortex of the brain. It is connected to the brain's fear circuitry (amygdala), ie the sudden and overwhelming feeling or angry response (animal instincts take over). The amygdala and orbital frontal cortex will override the prefrontal region (which supports higher intellectual functions). In other words,

"...try to change another person's behaviour, even with the best possible justifications, he or she will experience discomfort. The brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, and the capacity of higher thought is decreased. Change itself thus amplifies stress and discomfort; and managers (who may not, from their position in the hierarchy, perceive the same events in the same way as subordinates see them) tend to underestimate the challenge in implementation..."

David Rock et al, 2006

ii) behaviourism has limited long-term application if it is based on incentive and threat (the carrot and the stick)

iii) humanism has limited application in engaging people if it is practised using an empathetic approach of connection and persuasion, ie person-centered approach. It assumes that self-esteem, emotional needs, and values can provide leverage to changing behaviour, ie

"...the implicit goal is to 'get the people on board' by establishing trust and rapport, and then to convince them of the value of change..."

David Rock et al, 2006

On the other hand, the human brain will be inclined to push back. Part of this phenomena is a function of homeostasis (the natural movement of any organism toward equilibrium and away from change). Furthermore, the brain is a pattern-making organ.

iv) focus is important as the act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain, ie

"...concentrating attention on your mental experience, whether a thought, an insight, a picture in your mind eye, or a fear, maintains the brain state arising in association with the experience. Over time, paying enough attention to any specific brain connection keeps the relevant circuitry open and dynamically alive. These circuits can then eventually become not just chemical links but stable, physical changes in the brain's structure...... the brain changes as a function of where an individual puts his or her attention..."

David Rock et al, 2006

v) expectations shape reality as people's preconceptions have a significant impact on what they perceive as reality. An example of this is the placebo effect, ie

"...tell people that they have been administered a pain-reducing agent and they experience a marked and systematic reduction in pain, despite the fact they have received a completely inert substance, a sugar pill......people experience what they expect to experience......The fact that expectations, whether conscious or buried in our deeper brain centers, can play such a large role in perceptions has significant implications. Two individuals working on the same customer service telephone line could hold different mental maps of the same customer..."

David Rock et al, 2006

The dissatisfied customer could be seen as a complainer or as a person providing valuable feedback!!!!

Remember: for change to be effective, employees need to have ownership of it.

vi) attention density (the amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience of the specific time) shapes identity as repeated, purposeful, and focused attention can lead to long-lasting personal evolution.

"...the greater the concentration on a specific idea or mental experience, the higher the attention density..."

David Rock et al, 2006

For the following reasons, for insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions:

- by making the connections themselves, people will experience an adrenaline-like rush, ie a positive and energizing experience.

"...This rush of energy may be central to facilitating change: it helps fight against...... forces trying to keep change from occurring, including the fear response of the amygdala..."

David Rock et al, 2006

- everyone has a unique brain architecture

"...neural networks are genes, experiences, and varying patterns of is far more effective and efficient to help others come to their own insights. Accomplishing this feat requires self-observation......With enough attention density, individual thoughts and acts of the mind can become an intrinsic part of an individual's identity: who one is, how one perceives the world, and how one's brain works. The neuroscientist's term for this is self-directed neuroplasticity..."

David Rock et al, 2006

- owing to the small capacity of the working memory, providing frequent and regular exposure to small amounts of information may be a better way of learning than large "brain dumps"

By some estimates (Caitlin Dewey, 2015) the average American consumes 5 times as much information now as he/she did 20 years ago, ie 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes daily (NB 34 gigabytes is equal to 2 times the memory of the entry-level iPhone). When you encounter new information, it stimulates your brain to produce chemicals like dopamine & norepinephrin. This makes you feel alert and helps you process the information. On the other hand, if you process too much information too quickly, like scrolling through information on the computer screen, you will burn up the brain's energy, and feel foggy, irritable, unproductive or angry. For example, around 20 tweets an hour is the most that most people can handle before their mental processing slows.

A little bit of stimulus improves attention but too much stimulus degrades attention

Remember: the brain is like a muscle and needs energy to operate


. Resistance to change does not necessarily surface in obvious ways; it can be obvious, implicit, immediate or deferred. Resistance that is obvious and immediate is the easiest to deal with. Implicit resistance is more subtle, such as loss of loyalty, loss of motivation, increased mistakes, increased absenteeism, etc; these can be difficult to recognise. Deferred actions can cloud the link between the source of resistance and the reaction to it. Reaction to change can build up and explode unexpectedly as a cumulative response.

. Resistance can be considered a natural reaction ‐ a step in a process that ultimately leads to adoption of the change. It is a normal response for those who have a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo and guarding themselves against loss. Sometimes the resistance is over-simplified at the start of a change process. The expression "I won't"can be unpacked to "why should I?"In other words "why should I let go of something that has meaning to me? If I let go of it, what do I get in its place?"

. The strength of resistance can give an estimation of the degree to which the change has latched on to something meaningful. Discovering what is valuable can be important for designing or amending change strategies. When confronted with reactions that reflect resistance, the following questions could be asked:

- why has the resistance occurred at this particular point?

- what is being resisted and why?

- how is the resistance being demonstrated?

- are there any outside influences causing or adding to this behavior?

. One of the most common mistakes made by managers when they encounter resistance is to become angry, frustrated, impatient or exasperated. The problem with an emotional reaction is that it increases the probability that the resistance will intensify.

. Some of the common motives for resistance are

- secondary gain resistance ‐ reluctant to change, ie like the care and attention that management gives you, but do not want to change

- defence mechanism ‐ people initiate an assortment of reactions (usually emotive) to defend themselves from painful realisation and to maintain current status, eg involving shifts in power and authority or significant personal development. They require behavioural changes to handle the new situation.

- new changes may reflect poorly on past performance, ie require an admission of past incompetencies and "loss of face"

The first step in understanding resistance is understanding the context of the resistance, ie

" a general rule, one is ill-advised to confront the resistances directly; such a step typically engenders defensiveness. It makes more sense to begin with areas where the target group feels unsatisfied or frustrated and to suggest ways in which felt deficits, problems, or frustrations can be counteracted..."

Howard Gardner, 2006a

Some Reasons for Resistance to Change

. The purpose is not made clear

. The implementers are not involved in the planning

. An appeal is based on personal reasons

. Habit patterns of the work group are ignored

. There is poor communication regarding a change

. There is fear of failure

. Excessive work pressure is involved

. The "cost"is too high, or the reward for making the change is seen as inadequate

. The present situation seems satisfactory

. There is a lack of respect and trust in the change initiator

. There is a lack of understanding as to the intended result of a change

. There is a perceived threat (physical, emotional and psychological)

. Fear of the unknown

. Middle management are the greatest resisters of change, as they perceive that they have the most to lose from change

. Lack of understanding/uncertainty about the change proposed ie poor communication of the rationale for the change and the desired output of the change

. Self-interest/loss of power/loss of face, ie during a change process, parts of the organisation may be negatively affected, and as a result, have strong reservations about the change

. Existing skills made less relevant/obsolete, ie changing technology can make existing skills no longer applicable, eg printers in newspapers

. Different perceptions/frame of reference/change is against the existing culture, eg public organisations being privatised or commercialised

. Change is perceived as meaning extra work, but if people have ownership and the rewards are obvious, the extra work is less of a problem

. Value of, and attitude to, work and the organisation that employs them varies among individuals, ie attitude to leisure and individualism and work as a necessary evil ‐ need to work out appropriate incentives for individuals and groups

. Change is a surprise-like acquisition: the intention is clear, the consequences are not, and people negatively affected may resist it

. Lack of trust in management, eg low credibility based on past performance and strong unionism can be linked to lack of trust in management

Some Comments that Indicate Resistance

. Yeah but.........

. The toos..........(it's too hard, too complicated, too expensive, etc)

. They will never buy it.............

. It's unrealistic............

. It's just a fad.............

. It will never work.........

. It can't be done...........

. If it ain't broke, don't fix it........

. Don't stick your neck out..........

. It's not in the budget..........

. Let's wait and see........

Types of Resistance to Change

. Resistance can be broken done into 3 categories: logical, psychological and sociological, ie


(based on rational reasoning)


(based on emotions, sentiments and attitudes)


(based on group interest and values)

Time required to change or adjust

Fear of unknown

Organisational political coalition

Extra effort to adjust/relearn

Feared inability to cope with new change

Opposing group values/beliefs

Threat of less desirable conditions

Low tolerance to change

Vested interests

Downgrading of work position

Dislike of management or change agents

Parochial, narrow outlook

Economic cost of change

Lack of trust in others

Desire to retain existing friendships

Uncertainty as to likely success of change initiative

Desire for status quo


Questionable technical feasibility of change

Need for security

Stages of Resistance to Change

. Resistance follows the "grief cycle": shock or denial or disbelief, anger, bargaining, anxiety, sadness, disorientation, depression, acceptance and action (see earlier in this Volume)
. Six Levels of Response to Change (Degrees of Ownership)

organisational development change management

A greater focus on readiness for change and less on resistance to change is recommended. This includes linking your support to the opinion-makers who are leading the change, rather than to the resistors. Although there is a temptation to convert a resistor, this can take a lot of time and energy that could be better and more effectively spent elsewhere, such as with the supporter of the change process. If you are spending too much time with the resistors, the message that you are sending staff is that if you resist, management spends time with you. This is the wrong message to send in a change process.

Some Methods for Dealing with Resistance to Change





There is a lack of information or inaccurate information and analysis

Education + communications

Once persuaded, people will often help with the implementation of the change

Can be very time - consuming if lots of people are involved

The initiators do not have all the information they need to design the change, and where others have considerable power to resist

Participation + involvement

People who participate will be committed to implementing change, and any relevant information they have will be integrated into the change plan

Can be very time - consuming if participators design an inappropriate change

People are resisting because of adjustment problems

Facilitation + support

No other approach works as well with adjustment problems

Can be time - consuming, expensive and still fail

Someone or some group will clearly lose out in a change, and that group has considerable power to resist

Negotiation + agreement

Sometimes it is a relatively easy way to avoid major resistance

Can be too expensive in many cases if it alerts others to negotiate

Other tactics will not work, or are too expensive

Manipulation + co-optation

It can be relatively quick and an inexpensive solution to resistance problems

Can lead to future problems if people feel manipulated

Speed is essential, and the change initiators possess considerable power

Explicit + implicit coercion

It is speedy, and can overcome any kind of resistance

Can be risky if it leaves people angry at the initiators

(source: John Kotter et al, 1979)

(sources: John Kotter et al, 19

79; William Bridges, 1991; Robert Heller, 1998; Kathleen Liebfied, 1996; Sarah Colley, 2013)


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