Anticipating and Overcoming Resistance to Change in the Workplace

Resistance to change exists on all levels

Resistance to change exists on all levels

There are very few things in life of which we can be sure.  One thing we can always count on, however, is that nothing is going to stay the same.  Change is necessary for both personal and professional growth, yet it is something that most people fear.  Change takes us away from the status quo–a place of stability–and forces us into unknown territory.  In business, it seems that change has become a constant if a company is to remain competitive.  In fact, many businesses are forced to make transformational changes as often as every five years (Kotter & Schlesinger, 2008).   Resistance to change is a normal human reaction, even if the change is positive.  However, just as there are different types of people,  there are different types of resistance.  Because of this,  the success of organizational change projects often rests in the ability of the change leaders to recognize and address those different types of resistance.

Change causes emotional turmoil regardless of the situation.  Most people react to change in one of three ways.  The first reaction is a subtle passive resistance.  Others may have a more emotional response and behave aggressively against the change.  Still others might embrace the  change, viewing it not as a threat but as a new opportunity for growth (Kotter & Schlesinger, 2008).  In my experience, the third reaction is the least common.  Passive resistance is usually most common reaction to organizational change.  Passive resistance usually stems from resistance to change on an emotional level and is often expressed through deflective humor (Piderit, 2000).  When people react aggressively against proposed changes,  resistance is mainly cognitive in nature.  Cognitive resistance to change can also be associated with  fear of the change or low self efficacy.  When preparing for a change project, it is helpful for change leaders to understand the types of resistance they may face as well as the underlying reasons for that change.

No one wants to change

No one wants to change

There are four common reasons people resist change.  One reason is people are resistant to new concepts is a fear that they will lose something of value.  It can be power, status, or even simply the comfort of predictability.  This is a powerful cause of resistance, and one that the change leader should consider seriously when planning change strategies.  Other times people simply don’t understand the proposed change or the reason it is needed.  Change managers can often overcome these types of resistance with clear, effective communication.  By painting a vivid picture of what can be gained from the change, change managers can often gain the support of those who are afraid of losing something due to the change.  Consistent, informal face-to-face communication can help achieve buy-in from those who initially may not understand the need for the change itself (Piderit, 2000).

There are also instances when people may understand the change proposal, but don’t feel it is in the best interest of the organization.  In some instances their concerns may be valid, but many managers simply see this concern as resistance.   Just as change managers ask those affected by change to keep an open mind, they should do so themselves as well.  Considering diverse opinions about a change proposal may create a stronger product in the end, or the realization that certain parts of the change may not be necessary.  Finally, there are people who simply have a low tolerance for change.  They are afraid they may not be able to cope in the new environment or may not have the necessary skills to be successful.  (Kotter & Schlesinger, 2008).  Resistance of this nature can be overcome through training and development.

There are as many different ways to deal with resistance as there are types of resistance itself.  However, when faced with any type of resistance, addressing the situation with transparent, honest communication and empathetic behavior is vital for a successful change project (Kotter & Schlesinger, 2008).   Consistent, open, two-way communication is one of the most powerful tools to influence people and remove resistance to change.  Helping people understand the need for the change and building  trust through daily dialogues  can make any change project  easier to accomplish.



Kotter, J. P., & Schlesinger, L. A. (2008). Choosing Strategies for Change. Harvard Business Review, 86(7/8), 130-139.

Piderit, S.K. (2000). Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: A multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change. Academy of Management Review, 25(4): 783-794.   

About Chris Griffin

Chris Griffin is a executive coach with a passion for wellness. He helps executives and senior management enhance their performance and their lives by pinpointing and changing self-defeating behaviors.
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