Why Do Organizations Resist Change? Suggestions for Overcoming Resistance to Change

Have you ever designed what you thought was the perfect solution to a problem at work only to hear the phrase “we have decided to go in another direction”?

Hearing these words can be frustrating when you have put your time and effort into researching and developing an innovative fix for a complex problem. It is challenging to come up with a great solution. However, the really difficult work starts when you try to get organizational buy-in to implement that solution at scale. In this article, I provide an overview of some best practices for overcoming these issues.

Why do people resist change?

Resistance to change is natural. Organizations often resist change because they are composed of people who have an invested stake in the process.

People resist change for a variety of reasons. One or a mixture of rational, non-rational, political, and management factors typically play a major role in an individual’s resistance to change.

Three common reasons for resistance to change and team conflict are due to the perception of risk involved, the amount of effort required, and a desire to remain comfortable. These reasons highlight a fear of the negative consequences that can sometimes follow organizational change.

Reasons for resisting change vary based on the cultural context and scale of the proposed changes, but fear is often at the root of this resistance.

“People do not resist change per se, rather they resist the uncertainties and potential outcome that change can cause”
- Diane Waddell and Amrik Sohal (1998)

Uncertainty about an issue can play a major role in shaping individual and organizational decision making. As a result, it is important to learn why specific stakeholders are resisting this particular change. Understanding the why can help you to address the issue of uncertainty by asking what they fear will happen if the change occurs and listening closely to their responses.

Change requires empathy. Understanding stakeholders’ resistance and allowing them to feel as though their opinions have been heard can be helpful in developing better solutions that stakeholders can mutually agree on and be invested in.

Stakeholders who resist change often focus on the benefits of not changing, whereas people who design the changes focus on the benefits of changing. Stakeholders will often focus on the benefits of their own approach. They make sense of the issue by framing it in terms of their own interpretation, needs, and values.

How can you minimize resistance to change?

Individual stakeholders are usually not able to see all of the underlying conditions that have framed other stakeholders’ points of view. This mismatch in approaches, frames, and interests needs to be addressed on an individual basis by a neutral facilitator using adaptive conflict management strategies. Without dialogue or the use of other methods to cultivate stakeholders’ buy-in to the change process, these individuals will often reject the change and the proposed changes will fail.

Empathetic listening can help to minimize resistance to change and build consensus.

When dealing with an emotionally charged topic, it can be helpful to bring in a neutral facilitator. This facilitator could be someone from another department who is unfamiliar with the issue or in extreme circumstances someone you hire from outside the organization exclusively for this purpose. A facilitator can engage stakeholders in dialogue to get to the root of the conflict and determine if it is related to substantive, relationship, or process issues. Facilitators can play an important role in breaking down barriers between stakeholders and helping the team find a way to move forward.

What is conflict?

The term conflict is often used sparingly when dealing with resistance to change, as it evokes strong reactions. People generally see conflict as a negative thing. Yet, acknowledging resistance to change as a type of conflict and addressing it can also be a starting point for managing it and generating a solution. Conflict can be defined neutrally as,

“A relationship among two or more opposing parties, whether marked by violence or not, based on actual or perceived differences in needs, interests, and goals. Conflicts are a normal part of human interaction, and many conflicts can be managed productively”
- Katherine Means, Cynthia Josayma, Erik Nielsen, and Vitoon Viriyasakultorn (2002)

This definition highlights the normalcy of conflict and the role that perceptions can play in shaping conflicts.

How can you minimize and manage conflict?

Acknowledging conflict related to a proposed change is the first step in minimizing resistance to change. Next, the relevant stakeholders need to be identified. A facilitator or neutral party can meet individually with the stakeholders or a representative (if the group is large). This meeting allows the stakeholder to discuss their perceptions, needs, interests, and goals with the facilitator. Once the facilitator has talked to all of the relevant stakeholders, they should set a group meeting to discuss the change. Small groups (4–6 people) are better for these types of discussions, so the facilitator may need to have multiple meetings to include all of the relevant stakeholders.

The facilitator can use these meetings to generate a dialogue between stakeholders. Fisher and Ury’s rules of principled negotiation can be used as starting point for starting or focusing the discussion. These rules highlight the importance of:

  1. Separating people from the issues at hand
  2. Focusing on stakeholders’ interests rather than positions
  3. Collectively identifying additional and better options
  4. Setting objective criteria to come to a mutually agreed upon solution

The primary goals of these meetings should be to gain an understanding of the resistance to change and generate alternative solutions for mutual gain.

What other approaches can I use to reduce resistance to change?

These types of meetings with stakeholders can be an excellent way of addressing resistance to change but are not always appropriate or possible. Other options for addressing resistance to change can be individual meetings with a person who resists the change to learn why they oppose it and what could be done to get them on board.

It is also important to remember that having the best-designed solution on paper is not enough. If you do not have buy-in from the necessary stakeholders, your proposed change will not be successful.

Organizational changes need to be designed with the end-users in mind. By getting feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders throughout the design stage, planners can propose better changes that have higher adoption rates and lower failure rates. These stakeholders can also introduce important theoretical and practical considerations that may be missed by the designers.

Things to remember

Regardless of which approach is selected to minimize resistance to change there are five important things to keep in mind.

  1. Do not take resistance to change personally. Making resistance into a personal matter cause personal conflict to complicate the process and make finding a mutually acceptable solution much more difficult.
  2. Try to understand the resistance. Asking questions to try to understand the reasons why people are resistant to adopt your approach can help to improve your proposed changes and gain buy-in for this and future projects.
  3. Do not blame others for refusing to change. People often wrongly attribute someone’s behavior or opinions on an issue to their personality rather than trying to think about other reasons why they may be resisting the change. This can lead to interpersonal conflict rather than focusing on the substantive issues.
  4. Do not try to force change. Your change may be adopted without stakeholders’ buy-in, but it will not be as successful as it should be and can lead to additional organizational conflict down the road.
  5. Try to see resistance to change as an opportunity to grow as an organization. Resistance to change can often help to improve the proposed changes to better meet the needs of the stakeholders. Increasing organizational dialogue can also help to discover new things about the organization and introduce other issues that need to be addressed.

Addressing resistance to change within an organization helps to cultivate a system for dealing with these types of issues. This helps to improve future organizational discussions and make the decision-making process easier. It also means that decisions are more likely to be adopted by the relevant stakeholders.

Organizational leaders and other change agents also need to keep in mind the specific cultural, historical, and administrative context of their organization when suggesting or implementing changes. Understanding the culture of the organization where the changes will be adopted helps planners design a more appropriate solution to the problem.

Reframing resistance as an opportunity for growth

Resistance to change is common across all types of organizational settings. This resistance often stems from individuals, departments, or organizations’ fear over ceding control over their cultural domain within the organization. Ironically it is often those introducing the changes who are least aware of the roots of resistance and open to changes in the implementation of their ideas. Therefore, it is important for change agents to talk with people outside of their group and be open to their input. It is important to remain open to new ideas throughout the process. This approach can help you see resistance as a tool for building better solutions and organizational improvement rather than as an impediment. Adopting this approach, allows resistors to become collaborators.

“Resistance can play a critical role in drawing everyone’s attention to an aspect of the change that may be inappropriate, not well thought through or perhaps plain wrong”
- Diane Waddell and Amrik Sohal (1998)

This quote highlights the importance of listening and maintaining perspective throughout the different stages of implementation (exploration, adoption, implementation, sustainment, and monitoring).

Change agents and organizational leaders need to focus on increasing awareness, learning, practice, and accountability throughout the implementation process. Adopting simple practices like letting people know that you think they are doing a great job, you appreciate what they are doing, and your goal is to give them more resources to achieve more successes have been shown to have a major impact on reducing resistance to change.

Implementing change is all about framing the change in meaningful ways that are appropriate for their particular context. Successful approaches will keep these cultural factors in mind throughout the implementation process.

Helpful resources for learning more about this topic

DiDonato, Tom and Noelle Gill. (2015). “Changing an Organization’s Culture, Without Resistance or Blame.” Harvard Business Review. 15 July 2015. Web. 09 March 2016. https://hbr.org/2015/07/changing-an-organizations-culture-without-resistance-or-blame.

Fisher, R. U., & Ury, W. W. (1983). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Penguin Books.

Kiseloski, Michael. “Overcoming Resistance to Change — Isn’t it Obvious?” http://ed.ted.com/on/pAmWSfeb.

Means, Katherine, Cynthia Josayma, Erik Nielsen, and Vitoon Viriyasakultorn. (2002). “Community-based forest resource conflict management. A Training Package. Volume 1” FAO/ RECOFTC. Bangkok. Thailand. http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/Y4300E/Y4300E00.HTM.

Stagl, Heather. (2015). “How to Deal with Resistance to Change.” TEDTalk. 30 June 2015. Web. 1 Mar. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79LI2fkNZ2k.

Susskind, Lawrence E., Sarah McKearnen, and Jennifer Thomas-Lamar. (1999). The consensus building handbook: A comprehensive guide to reaching agreement. Sage Publications.

Waddell, Diane and Amrik Sohal. (1998). “Resistance: a constructive tool for change management.” Management Decision, Volume. 36 Issue: 8 pp. 543–548.

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