Resistance to Change


Resistance to Change

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. —C. S. Lewis

Resistance—What a Pain! (Or is it?)

If there was ever an aspect to organizational change that permeates our profession, it’s the need to address resistance. Reluctance, concerns, struggle, and opposition are all natural and healthy parts of the human transformative process. As such, surfacing, exploring, and addressing the views that run contrary to intended outcomes is as important to our role as is promoting understandingcommitment, and alignment toward realization goals.

The focus of this blog is the facilitation of fundamental transformative change endeavors. Within this context, is resistance difficult to deal with? Without question. Is it possible to achieve ambitious, dramatic change agendas without it being a central part of the implementationlandscape? Absolutely not.

As critical as it is to our work, some practitioners take the position that resistance is an unnecessary outcome that results from poor implementation planning or execution. I hold the opposite view —I see it as an intrinsic component to reaching full realization. Differences of opinion about issues as fundamental as resistance are worthy of open dialogue within our practitioner community. We will become a stronger discipline by sharing views on important facets of our profession, particularly when they represent divergent opinions.

Therefore, in this series, I’ll contrast my understanding of why some change agents see resistance as avoidable with why I believe it is both inescapable and central to achieving whatclients expect us to help them accomplish.

First, as best I can tell, there are three basic variations of the “resistance can and should be averted” contention:

  • There are those who believe all you have to do is listen to everyone’s concerns and empathize with their circumstances and they will cooperate.

While there is value in listening and being empathetic, in my experience, people are often offended by the notion that their apprehensions are seen as so inconsequential that a little “getting it off your chest” is all that’s needed.

  • Then there are those who believe venting isn’t enough, but that resistance can be dispelled by employing various “involvement” or “engagement” activities. The theory here is that the anxiety and discomfort people experience when their world is turned upside down will thin out, if not vanish, by asking them to participate in some way in the change process.

I’ve rarely seen this approach live up to its hype. In many instances, those asked to participate actually leave the process with less trust than when they entered because many of their questions are left unaddressed. Some even get the message that they “should” have been persuaded by leadership in the first place. When this happens, instead of showing sponsors how to surface and use resistance to their advantage, practitioners undermine them by leaving them thinking it is preventable; thus, they are ill-equipped to deal with it.

  • My personal favorite is when change agents proclaim that human resistance doesn’t actually exist. They take the position that people don’t resist change, only systems do.

This one is so counter to my experience that it is hard to fathom the logic. As I understand it, the view depends on an interesting balancing act between rejecting the existence of human resistance to change on one hand while at the same time recognizing its presence but blaming it on the organizational structures and processes within which people operate. It’s a bit convoluted to say the least.

I can’t claim to fully comprehend this thinking, but it seems to somehow play into victimizingtargets of change…portraying them as helpless against the overpowering dynamics that surround them. To the contrary, I can’t buy into this characterization because I’ve seen too many empowered targets of change significantly impact sponsor decision making. When resistance is properly brought forward to sponsors who genuinely value the target’s perspectives, they are able to influence both the changes that are approved and how they are pursued.

I guess it’s obvious that I disagree with these views. In fact, my experience has led me to believe that unless people register some degree of reservation about impending change, meaningful resolve for an initiative’s success can’t be developed. Doubt is an essential element in the commitment-building process and resistance is nothing more than an overt or covert expression of that skepticism.

The only set of conditions I have seen where resistance doesn’t materialize is when modest, incremental, or inconsequential changes are being attempted. Significant disenchantment can be largely skirted in these situations, but not when dramatic, fundamental endeavors are being pursued. With major change, resistance, in some form and to some degree, is always in play.

Bear in mind that this blog is not intended for the full spectrum of professional change facilitators. I’m writing for seasoned practitioners who are involved in complex, transformative initiatives. Imperative, multi-faceted organizational change efforts may be perceived as a wonderful new future or a horrible turn of events with disastrous implications. It all depends on the constituency you talk to. Either way, it involves humans in transition, and one thing you can bank on is that people will squirm and strain if asked to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances when there is a lot at stake.

Practitioners who promote resistance as a negative liability that can and should be prevented (instead of an uncomfortable but positive asset to be leveraged) do their clients a considerable disservice:

  • At a minimum, they lessen their own contribution to client success.
  • They often compound what otherwise could have been resolvable problems.
  • They miss the chance to identify concerns from the target’s perspective that can be mitigated early.
  • They bypass the prospect of targets feeling that sponsors want to hear their opinions, value their views and are eager to address what issues they can.
  • They squander their opportunities to prepare people for the reality of change.
  • They fail to capitalize on the chance for sponsors and targets to build mutual respect and interdependencies.
  • They cater to an unrealistic notion that somehow disruptive change can be achieved in a contented, conflict-free environment.
  • They foster superficial imitations of commitment rather than deep resolve.
  • They create environments prone to installing rather than realizing outcomes.

Practitioners who operate on the basis that resistance to major change can be averted jeopardize the intended outcome of their assigned projects and erode their own credibility in the process. For example, executives facing sophisticated, enterprise-wide initiatives for the first time might be coaxed into buying the myth that people will willingly upend their world without feeling any fear or doubt. Battle-scarred leaders familiar with the harsh realities of critical transformations, however, know that resistance is always going to be their companion on the change journey…at some time and to some degree. They look for seasoned change professionals who know what to do about it, not naïve players who cling to idealist notions of significant change without struggle.


I’m glad to say that the majority of change practitioners I know have a healthy respect for resistance and see it as an advantage to the implementation process, not an annoyance to be deflected. The point of this post is to say that there are those with a different view. I encourage readers to give some thought to this issue, because we must each decide which perspective is right for us. As a profession, we can live with differences of convictions, but it is vital that each of us formulate our views on matters of such importance to our craft.

I believe resistance is inevitable, important to manage carefully, and that we as practitioners have a responsibility to address it with skill and mindfulness. It’s with these biases that I offer the following blog entries:

  • In post 2, I’ll focus on the influence that predictability and control have in shaping resistance.
  • In posts 3, 4, and 5, I’ll review three models I use when assessing how resistance is impacting implementation as well as when I’m educating clients about its various manifestations.
  • Also in post 5, I’ll give you the link to a tool that fosters sponsor/target discussion about current resistance to a specific change.

I hope that, in response to these posts, you will consider sharing some of your perspectives on the topic. What have you learned about resistance that others could benefit from?

The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less

Read the spotlight article.

Companies are experiencing a crisis in employee engagement. One of the problems is all the pressure companies are putting on employees to produce. Workers are trying to get more done in less time-and are burning out. But while time is finite, energy is not; people can increase their reserves of personal energy. The key is to establish rituals-such as shutting down your e-mail for a couple of hours a day so you can focus on priorities, or taking a daily 3 p.m. walk to get a breather-that renew your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy. These behavioral changes are sustainable, though, only if leaders at the most senior levels of an organization are willing to set a context for them, both by creating their own rituals and by setting a tone where people feel safe taking time out of the day on a regular basis. This is just what the leaders of Sony Pictures Entertainment did. Working with Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project, they implemented energy management training that has reached nearly half the company so far. To date, the reaction to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. Eighty-eight percent of participants say it has made them more focused and productive. More than 90% say it has helped them bring more energy to work every day. Eighty-four percent say they feel better able to manage their jobs’ demands and are more engaged at work. Sony’s leaders believe that these changes have helped boost the company’s performance. Despite the recession, Sony Pictures had its most profitable year ever in 2008 and one of its highest revenue years in 2009.

The new normal means constant change. Companies must reinvent themselves if they want to survive. This HBR Spotlight section looks at organizational change through two very different lenses-the first examining the connection between restructuring and improved performance, the second making the case for reorganization as a means of keeping a company’s structure in tune with the human dynamics that drive creativity and innovation. A third article suggests new ways to keep overworked employees engaged and productive in an economy struggling to recover from global recession.

Build A Team Culture Among Your Employees

Transforming a business often requires focus on people, process and technology. While a lot of effor is spent on process and technology, the people who will sustain any change and drive real innovation are often an afterthought.

Building a team culture is a necessary component of any sustainable transformation initiative. In this paper, learn how to establish an environment that promotes idea sharing and mutual respect.