Why People Resist Change

Aug 08, 2011 4 Comments by

In my last post, I described a process Change Agents can use to gather preliminary data about the types of resistance they may expect to their change. As you follow through on the surveys, interviews and site visits as I described, you will start to amass a wealth of raw data. This data will contain clues which can help you get started on the work of addressing resistance.

Dig a Little Deeper: Start to identify the specific types of resistance your stakeholders may harbor by looking for trends in the answers to your questions. Some obvious trends may jump out in answers like:

“…We have no time to deal with this change on top of all the other work we are being asked to do…”

“…We tried something like that in the past and it didn’t work… but it looks like you are pressing ahead anyway…”

Others types of resistance may be more subtle such as.

“…I’m fine with it as long as you help me prepare…”


“…We’re a bit different down here in the XYZ corner of the world… I wish you would have talked to us first.”

To help you catch both the direct and subtle expressions of resistance to your change, it can help to have a short list of potential sources in your toolkit. To get you started, let me share a brief list of potential resistance motivations that I’ve collected over the years.

Why People Resist Change: People resist change for a lot of valid (and some not so valid) reasons such as:

  • They just don’t buy the rationale or business case for the change.
  • They question the timing for the change.
  • They question the priority of the change compared to other things that need their attention.
  • They believe the resource investment to make the change could be better spent on something else.
  • They don’t see how the change fits into the overall company’s future direction or their business unit’s strategy.
  • They fear that the overall change will fail and they don’t want to see the organization damaged.
  • They don’t trust the people driving the change.
  • They question whether this was the right change to make.
  • They lack confidence in their own level of skill or knowledge in the new ways of doing things (I have found this to be very common in the case of big technology-driven changes)
  • They don’t know enough about the change or they feel that communication has been insufficient.
  • They worry that there will not be adequate support mechanisms in place after the change occurs.
  • They point to a track record of the organization failing to successfully navigate similar changes in the past.
  • It’s not in their personal/political interest to support the change.

As the results begin to flow in, look for trends in the type of resistance similar to those listed above and you will be at least be pointed in the right direction to begin addressing the resistance.

Where You Stand Often Depends on Where You Sit:  Another useful trend to look for within your stakeholder resistance is the breakout of sources.

Be ready for different organizational units to potentially report different levels of support for the change. This may be caused by a variation in the effectiveness of communication within the different units or any other number of factors.

How Widespread is the Resistance? For illustration, let me provide two examples. If you find that a majority of people across the company question the strategic motivations behind the change, you may need to address the gap by having your executive sponsors agree to a clear, fully-aligned rationale statement for the change and have them use that statement as a focus of some immediate communication efforts.

But if that lack of confidence in the strategic underpinnings of your change is coming from only a few of the business units – focus a similar communication effort through the leaders of those areas without necessarily blanketing the company.

The important thing is to identify areas that may need more attention so your resources can be focused there. The difference in resource investment between targeted and broadcast messaging may not be significant, but as you get into more expensive change activities such as training and support, you will want to focus your resources on the areas of highest need.

Processes and Roles as a Source of Resistance: Different process areas or job roles can be another variant to watch closely. An example of this trend could include the case where all managers report a high level of acceptance for the rationale, but field-level staff report a low level of support. Perhaps those who will be “doing” the new process report more or less confidence than those who will be “managing” the new process.  Resistance that’s concentrated in a given process or a role may indicate a need to beef up your team’s dialogue levels with people in that particular role, those involved in a specific end-to-end process or an entire group of stakeholders within a specific physical location.

Summary: Resistance to change comes in many forms and it can come from may sources. As you prepare to tackle that resistance, start by finding the people who have the highest level of concern and characterize their resistance in broad terms. Eventually you will get a chance to address individual resistors and the specific motivations behind their lack of support. For Change Agents to be successful, at the very least they need to approach the challenge presented by resistance and not shy away from it.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What other expressions of resistance have you seen?
  2. What happens if the resistance is coming from people who are higher up in the organization?

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Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

4 Responses to “Why People Resist Change”

  1. chihos (@chihos) (@chihos) says:

    Be ready to deal with Resistance to Change! http://thebigrocks.com/why_resist/ for #business #project #leaders who #LeadChange

  2. Steve says:

    Thanks Gavin,
    Good call! All the more reason to avoid “going it alone”, eh?
    Make it a Great week!

  3. Gavin (via Facebook) says:

    Nice article Steve.
    In reading through the reasons people resist, virtually all of them contain a measure of one thing that will continue to hinder progress… PRIDE/EGO!

  4. chihos (@chihos) (@chihos) says:

    "Why People Resist Change": http://thebigrocks.com/why_resist/ #baot #pmot #leadchange #sap #teams

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