Is Managing Resistance to Change Limiting your Success with Organizational Change?

Managing Resistance To Change

Dr. Dawn Marie Turner CMC

One  common question leaders ask me is: How do I manage resistance to change? In my experience too many leaders are spending too much time and energy trying to manage resistance to change. I believe it may actually be sabotaging their organizational change success.

The need to manage resistance to change is based on the erroneous belief that people, especially employees, resist change. One pair of researchers that challenge the current thinking on resistance to change, state “The belief that people do resist change causes all kinds of unproductive actions within organizations.” The problem is not resistance to change. The problem is the failure to adequately prepare people for the change(s) the organization needs to make. People don’t inherently resist change.

Reframing our Understanding of Resistance

George Washington University Professor Emeritus Jerry Harvey identified (in 1975) resistance to change as one of the eight myths of organizational development. He suggested then, that we should forget the concept of resistance to change. Yet resistance to change persists today and its management is seen as a change management imperative.

To better understand this and how managing resistance  could be sabotaging your organizational efforts it is helpful to briefly explore its origins.  Resistance to change was introduced in 1947 by Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist. Lewin described resistance to change as a complimentary force to the drivers for change — it only exists in relation to the forces driving change. Together these two forces work to maintain a state of quasi-equilibrium. Lewin’s view of resistance to change is very different than the way it is discussed and managed today.

Today, resistance to change is defined almost as a personality trait, a phase of the change process, a motivational problem and viewed as inevitable. Leaders frequently say to me, “He doesn’t like change” or “She is just resistant to change.” I believe these commonly held beliefs about resistance to change and the propensity toward its management may be contributing to the high failure rate of organizational change. Some estimate as much as 70% of organizational change initiatives fail.

Resistance to change is not a personality trait or stage of change, it is a symptom of an unresolved issue or problem manifested in action, behaviour, or attitude. All too often it is a convenient label a leader places on an employee when objections are raised, or the desired response is not received. One exercise in the Living and Leading Change program asks leaders to view an individual’s response to a change and then to identify what is happening.  Most leaders state the person is resistant to the change. They are always surprised to learn the person they labelled as resistant, is actually the person most ready for the change.

I have talked with hundreds of employees and not one said she resists change. On the contrary, employees use words like challenge, opportunity, and necessary to describe organizational change. So, why do leaders perceive resistance to change as the number one barrier, and continue to believe employees don’t like change? Dr. Bennebroek Gravenhorst keenly notes, “Resistance to change seems to apply to everyone in an organization, except the top managers. One may get the impression that this is a special group, with supra-human abilities. Yet it is more likely that resistance to change did not occur in this group because they are usually the ones who decide about the changes.” Understanding this has direct implications on your success with change. Your employees don’t naturally resist change. It is the organizational factors both driving and restraining your change efforts, coupled with the normal human response to change that defines their interaction with the change, at any given point in time.

From Managing Resistance to Building Readiness

It is time to stop asking: “How will we deal with the resistance?” And start asking: “What is required to prepare the people affected for the transition the organization needs them to make?” The later question focuses your organizational change efforts on the activities needed for people readiness. Resistance to change cannot coexist with readiness. People that are ready for change don’t resist change. Increasing readiness for change requires two things, first knowledge of the way people naturally move through the change process. Second an understanding of the fundamental elements that create change readiness

Dr. Bennebroek Gravenhorst found in his study (exploring the existence of resistance to change) that resistance was not a standard response.

Over 50% of respondents had a positive expectation of the change, and the majority showed absolutely no sign of resistance.[iii] Results were consistent whether respondents were members of the management team, line managers or employees. He concluded, “people don’t resist change, as such, they resist being excluded from a change process that affects every aspect of the organization, including their work.”

I worked with one organization to help them implement a very complex change. After a particularly difficult meeting with a group of change recipients, one of my team members expressed her concern about the group’s high level of resistance to the change. After some discussion we determined that what looked like resistance was not a rejection of the change but a reflection of the group’s low level of perceived capability, a key determinant of readiness. Subsequently by designing and implementing additional activities that addressed the low level of perceived capability, we were able to raise readiness for the change. A group that was almost written off as a lost cause became one of the great success stories of the change.

All change is a choice. In every organization there will be people who will choose not to make the change journey. When you focus on building readiness rather than managing resistance to change, you can help more people make the change journey. Instead of talking people into the change, whether through persuasion, manipulation or fear, focus on reducing the organizational and social factors inhibiting the change and increasing the factors in support of the change.

Want to know if your organization is ready for change? Ask me about the Level of Readiness Assessment


 Turner Change Management is an organizational change company helping leaders gain the knowledge and skill they need to successfully navigate the complexities of change.

[iii] Gravenhorst, Bennebroek. (2003). A different view on resistance to change. Paper presented at the Power Dynamics and Organizational Change IV Symposium at the 11th EAWOP Lisbon Portugal.