Change Resistance People Science Brief

What does the research say about change resistance? Can you explain why “people resist change” isn’t the best way to describe the resistance we encounter during change?

Updated 10/16/2017

Resistance can be fatal to change efforts, but it’s also normal.

Change resistance is one of the most common reasons companies face difficulties in implementing change. Change resistance is often behind the inability to make sustainable changes.

Resistance during change is a better description of what’s going on.

During times of organizational change, people perceive loss: loss of power, loss of autonomy, loss of comfort, loss of pay, and loss of security. The sense of loss is what actually provokes resistance, so it’s important to understand. Beneficial or neutral aspects of a change don’t provoke resistance.

Resist believing the myth that “people resist change” — Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt explains a perspective centered on the Theory of Constraints:

To flip change resistance to support, get to the root concerns.

Behavioral resistance refers to passive or active actions in response to change (i.e. passively not making an effort to promote the change, actively complaining about change).

Behavioral resistance can have cognitive or affective roots.

Cognitive resistance comes from how a person thinks about the change (i.e., change is not valuable, change is not necessary).

With affective resistance, there are negative emotional reactions to the change (e.g., anxiety, anger, fear).

It’s often easier to provide knowledge, but feelings are more powerful drivers of resistance:

People differ in responses to change, so don’t expect uniformity.

Individual characteristics such as low self-esteem, external locus of control, low openness to experience, high cognitive rigidity, and other dispositional traits influence whether people will experience and exhibit change resistance.

Stress amplifies resistance during change.

Occupational stressors influence resistance to change. Specifically, job insecurity, loss of power, changes in job autonomy and flexibility, poor coworker relationships, and overall job stress all link to change resistance.

Dan Heath explains that exhaustion plays a role too:

Be intentional about change engagement and alignment.

Organizational context, or how the organization manages change, influences change resistance.

What opens the door for change resistance?

    • Poor communication
    • A culture that does not support change or promote participation
    • Inconsistent policies

Trust is an important resistance antidote.

When there is a lack of trust between people and their managers or leaders, change resistance is likely.

Experiencing resistance during change distances people from the organization.

Change resistance obviously hampers efforts to change. Perhaps more significantly, change resistance links to lower job satisfaction, weaker organizational commitment, and stronger turnover intentions.

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