People Science Logo

People Science

Change Resistance

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?

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 changes2,3,4,7,12.

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 resistance1,6.

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)5,12.

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 resistance4,5,11,12.

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 resistance9,10,12,13.

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 policies4,5,7,8,10,12

Trust is an important resistance antidote.

When there is a lack of trust between people and their managers or leaders, change resistance is likely7,12.

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 intentions12,13.


  1. Bailey, J. R., & Raelin, J. D. (2015). Organizations don’t resist change, people do: Modeling individual reactions to organizational change through loss and terror management. Organization Management Journal, 12(3), 125–138.
  2. Bovey, W. H., & Hede, A. (2001a). Resistance to organisational change: The role of defence mechanisms. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 16(7), 534–548.
  3. Bovey, W. H., & Hede, A. (2001b). Resistance to organizational change: The role of cognitive and affective processes. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 22(8), 372–382.
  4. Burnes, B. (2015). Understanding resistance to change – building on Coch and French. Journal of Change Management, 15(2), 92–116.
  5. Coch, L., & French, J. R. P. (1948). Overcoming resistance to change. Human Relations, 1(4), 512–532.
  6. Dent, E. B., & Goldberg, S. G. (1999). Challenging “Resistance to Change.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 35(1), 25–41.
  7. Erwin, D. G., & Garman, A. N. (2010). Resistance to organizational change: Linking research and practice. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 31(1), 39–56.
  8. Ford, J. D., Ford, L. W., & D’Amelio, A. (2008). Resistance to change: The rest of the story. Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 362–377.
  9. Giangreco, A., & Peccei, R. (2005). The nature and antecedents of middle manager resistance to change: Evidence from an Italian context. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 16(10), 1812–1829.
  10. Khan, M. M., Raza, M. A., & Mujtaba, B. G. (2016). Determinants of resistance to organizational change: A qualitative study of a non-governmental organization in pakistan. Journal of Educational Leadership and Policy, 1(3), 43–50.
  11. Oreg, S. (2003). Resistance to change: Developing an individual differences measure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 680–693.
  12. Oreg, S. (2006). Personality, context, and resistance to organizational change. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15(1), 73–101.
  13. Vakola, M., & Nikolaou, I. (2005). Attitudes towards organizational change: What is the role of employees’ stress and commitment? Employee Relations, 27(2), 160–174.
© Copyright Coetic 2014-2020. All rights reserved. Updated 2020-09-01.