How to Overcome Resistance to Change
Don’t punish resistance; reward participation instead.
“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”― Peter Senge
Overcoming resistance to change is a crucial priority for senior executives. When change fails, we blame the people.
This mental model is anything but helpful.
The idea that there is resistance to change ―and leaders must overcome it― turns employees into the problem and managers into heroes.
People don’t resist change, per se. This belief causes unproductive discussions and issues― we confuse objections with a lack of collaboration.
What if we stop focusing on overcoming resistance and encourage participation instead?
People Do Not Resist Change, Per Se
Our mental models are so ingrained that we don’t realize it.
Between 50 and 75% of change initiatives fail. But, blaming resistance to change is a poor excuse. As Beer, Eisenstat, and Spector argue, “most change programs are guided by a theory of change that is fundamentally flawed.”
To make change stick, research shows that it has to be intentional and internally motivated rather than imposed from the outside.
However, most change approaches rely on coercion or manipulation.
Managers see people’s “inherent resistance to change” as the problem. And try to ‘educate’ people or to change their attitudes.
It’s not change, but poorly implementation, what people resist.
As Eric Dent and Susan Galloway Goldberg explain in this paper, misinterpretation and management arrogance have distorted resistance to change. We got the original concept wrong.
The focus on the individual as the problem, turn subordinates as the culprits.
Kurt Lewin is credited with the notion of resistance to change. The German psychologist defined it as a systems phenomenon, not a psychological one. Resistance could occur anywhere in the system.
Several authors distorted his theory and turned resistance into a psychological issue. Zander, for example, characterized resistance as “behavior which is intended to protect an individual from the effects of real or imagined change.”
When change fails, managers blame people.
The focus on the individual as the problem, turn subordinates as the culprit. All prescribed solutions are for the manager to implement. It’s their job to neutralize people’s resistance.
Most authors believe that employees can be manipulated. By withholding information or implying future benefits ―such as a raise ― companies can increase compliance.
Resistance to change has become a pejorative term. Tagging employees with it stigmatizes people. Rather than opening up, they will resist more.
What if we approach change as a signal, rather than an issue?
Rather than acting arrogantly, empathize with your team. Understand what’s driving resistance. Instead of blaming people, use resistance as fuel for change.
Resistance to Change Is a Signal
J.P. Kotter, in Leading Change (HBR), reported than when organizations attempt a significant change, the employees often embrace the new vision and want to make it happen.
But, some obstacles prevent execution.
Tony Heath suggests that we replace the word “resistance” with “objection.”
The lean six sigma consultant explains that the word “resistance” characterizes the people who don’t want to go along with our change plans. But, he argues, those people deserve more credit than that.
Leveraging his learnings as a former therapist, Heath suggests that diagnosing someone as a ‘resistor’ is pointless. It carries a burden of negative consequences for both the patient and the professional.
Labeling people doesn’t provide any useful clue of what to do either. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead of thinking, “people resist change,” try saying, “people object change.”
Resistance is a signal that can provide deep insights. There’s no need to act on defensive mode. Approach it with a learning mindset instead.
Most of the time, resistance is a symptom of a more significant issue, as I wrote here.
People resist being exhausted. Change initiatives require that employees take additional tasks that wear them out. What looks like laziness is always exhaustion.
Self-control represents the mental power we all need to focus, innovate, and keep going in spite of failure. Self-control builds the resilience necessary to drive change.
Research shows that self-control is an exhaustible resource. As cited in the book Switch, when people burn out, they can no longer control their feelings and behaviors.
Is your team overloaded? Are you establishing clear priorities?
People resist a lack of purpose. To engage employees, they must understand the ‘why’ behind change. Usually, they focus on the company’s benefit but fail to make it relevant for the employees.
As Alden Mill explains on Unstoppable Teams, people are driven by the will to survive and a desire for personal gain. But, when they override their fears about survival, they can focus on their willingness to thrive.
That’s when a soul-driven desire takes over. We all aspire to be part of something greater than ourselves.
Are you connecting change initiatives with the bigger mission? How can people contribute?
People resist stupidity. Some change initiatives don’t make sense at all. Pressure from the board or the need to be perceived as innovative drive organizations to make foolish decisions
People don’t like stupidity — what looks like resistance is usually sheer common sense.
Encourage people to challenge your ideas the same you disagree with them. Embrace radical candor — challenge people directly while also showing that you care about them personally.
Listen to people’s objections. Do the new initiatives pass the common sense test?
Stop Fighting Resistance, Promote Participation Instead
Resistance is a sign that we are stretching beyond our comfort zone.
We all struggle to do something for the first time. It takes courage, effort, and practice to develop new habits.
Here’s how to promote participation based on my research and experience coaching organizations overcome resistance.
1. Reflect on your behavior
Change how you change rather than trying to change people.
Instead of fighting resistance, pay attention to the signal. What does resistance say about your leadership?
Employees are not the culprit. They can become your best allies and change advocates. Are you blaming people? Or using their feedback to increase support?
Shift your focus from overcoming resistance to designing a culture that promotes participation.
2. Build a culture of change
Focus on the context and various relationships rather than on the individual. Avoid turning resistance into something personal.
Innovation requires participation. Change can (and must) happen from anywhere in the organization. Everyone’s voice matters — create a safe space for people to speak up.
Creativity is a byproduct of Psychological Safety. High-performing teams feel safe to share their best ideas.
Also, people are fluid. We can all be resistors on one situation and change instigators on another.
3. Reframe the loss into a growth opportunity
Leaders focus on the future; employees on the past. We all suffer from loss aversion — we prefer to avoid losses over acquiring equivalent gain.
Organizational change often results in different types of losses.
Practice empathy to understand the perceived loss. Walk in your team member’s shoes. See what’s at stake for them.
Will the anticipated change result in the loss of status? Can people become obsolete (loss of competence)? Do they fear to lose a narrative that makes them feel proud?
Reframe the loss into a growth opportunity. Don’t just focus on the benefit for the overall organization. One of the most rewarding methods we coach our clients is to turn a change-driven loss into a win.
4. Build on the positive
Most companies, schools, and families function on an unwritten rule. They focus on fixing what’s broken and let the strengths take care of themselves.
But, most organizations are not broken — they don’t need to be fixed.
Appreciative Inquiry is a radically affirmative approach to change. It recognizes the best in people rather than seeing them as enemies to overcome. AI builds on the past and present strengths, successes, and potential.
Building on the positive increases participation and engagement. People move from ‘what is’ to ‘what it can be.’ They want to drive change, not resist it.
Appreciative Inquiry operates on the premise that people and organizations have things that work already — leveraging those drives sustainable change.
5. Bye-bye coercion, hello participation
Turn change into an invitation. Instead of punishing resistance, encourage participation.
Make it optional for your team to be part of a change initiative. Mandatory events decrease engagement. Invitation and opt-in participation increase interest.
Methods such as Liberating Structures, Appreciative Inquiry, or OpenSpace Beta understand that smart people don’t want to be forced to change.
Rather than coercing people, they turn change into an invitation. People can opt to participate or not.
The paradox is that people’s interest increases when they are given autonomy. They want to become a change instigator. And get involved out of passion, not of coercion.
People don’t resist change, per se. They resist being told what to do or the lack of clear benefits. Connect your initiatives with a bigger purpose.
Reward participation instead of punishing resistance. Make change optional.
Resistance is a signal. Don’t silence it — pay attention to what your team objects.