(credit: Karen)

Let’s stop talking about ‘resistance to change’ already

It’s disrespectful to people, it’s lazy thinking, and it undermines the effectiveness of change efforts

What is it that makes organizational change difficult? More likely than not, when you ask this question, the answer you hear will be ‘resistance to change’. Common wisdom has it that we are, on the whole, born conservatives, people who would instinctively oppose change rather than embrace it. Googling the phrase produces something like 30 million hits.

And ‘resistance to change’ is a hardy perennial. Even if you restrict the search to the last 24 hours, Google finds more than 150 results. Blogs and serious journals alike keep discussing it with relentless regularity.

But there is a serious problem with the concept.

The term ‘resistance’ evokes a stubbornness, like that of a donkey unwilling to put one leg in front of another. And what do people do with such a stubborn donkey? They try brute force: pushing its rear and pulling at the front. They try a stick to beat it into submission. They may even try a carrot to entice it to move in the desired direction.

HERMANN G. SIMON — The Stubborn Mule (1881). Courtesy: American Gallery, americangallery.wordpress.com

This is all too often what also happens with organizational change. The people who have to change (the change ‘targets’) are described as ‘resistors’, as if their single most important motivation is to prevent the change from progressing. Inevitably, this taints the approach to implementing change. Resistance must be defeated, and if the resistors cannot be bribed into compliance they will be beaten into submission.

And even if it is not necessarily formulated in such aggressive language, change management models tend to take the perspective of the change sponsor and the change manager. They have the task of raising awareness among the target audience, making them understand what it will entail, and developing a positive desire for the change. Where is the attention for the current viewpoint of the employees?

Growing resistance to change resistance

Thankfully, there seems to be a growing, well, resistance to the use of the phrase “resistance to change”. Calling people ‘resistors’ is indicative of little respect for the individuals concerned, as Terry Mrozcek suggests in Stop Referring To People Who See Negatives In Change As ‘Resistors’​! It says more about the poorly contained frustration of those using it, than about the attitude to change of those they’re speaking about. In Why it’s time to reframe our mindset about resistance Lena Ross talks about the need to understand those who need to change, and seeing them as responding in a certain way, rather than simply resisting. Jen Frahm wants us to look at ‘change resistance’ as something normal and even positive, and treat it as a source of useful feedback.

Rather than being treated as resistors, critical employees can be involved positively, and contribute to the nature of the change or how it is implemented. That can lead to a more robust change process, but it might also reinforce ownership of the change. In 2011 Mike Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely, described how people tend to attach more value to something into which they put effort, calling this the IKEA effect.

Dawn-Marie Turner advocates using a new language in Does Organizational Change Need a New Language?: let’s speak of ‘change readiness’ rather than of ‘resistance to change’. Gerard Kruidenier prefers to speak of ‘change reception’ instead.

But altogether there is something even more fundamentally wrong with talking of resistance. It’s not just a question of semantics. It reduces a complex reality to an oversimplified picture. In Change, Again?, Paul White lifts an illustrative snippet out of Rick Maurer’s Beyond the Wall of Resistance, three primary reasons why people resist change:

“I don’t get it.” (a lack of information or understanding)
“I don’t like it.” (their emotional reaction to how the change affects them)
“I don’t like you.” (a result of a lack of relationship or trust)

Is that really what is happening? Imagine you’re trying to make a change to your life — lose some weight, exercise more, or spend more time reading a book instead of watching TV. You will need to change your behaviour to realize your goal. That will be tough. Is that because you are resisting the change — because you don’t get it, or don’t like it? Not really. The reason why you struggle to embrace the behaviours that enable you to reach your goal is not that you are actively resisting them. It is because there are other options — gobbling up a packet of biscuits, staying in bed, or zonking out in front of the telly after dinner — that you somehow seem to prefer.

“Change, dammit! Change I tell you!” (credit: Karen)

If we look at people as resistors, stubbornly wanting to preserve “the” status quo, we make two mistakes:

  • (a) we assume there is just one status quo, instead of many individual status quos, composed out of people’s current choices which they would rather stick to than adopt the change, and
  • (b) we fail to pay attention to these current apparent preferences, which means we have no idea what is necessary to change them

Focus on the choices

That perspective, recognizing that people are decision-making individuals facing multiple options, is a lot more helpful than seeing them as one-dimensional change resistors. It is good to hear that this view is gaining traction: in a recent podcast at Change Management Review, Prof. Rune Todnem By alludes to the idea that employees who don’t immediately support a proposed change might perhaps simply have an alternative.

But the idea that people make choices between courses of action, rather than simply rejecting an imposed path, can help in other, even more important ways too.

Why are we making the choices they make? We can distinguish three categories of explanations.

First, in part, we reason. We consciously weigh up the costs and the benefits the upsides and the downsides of each possibility and work out our preferences. Looking at who stands to lose what, and who stands to gain what, from a change is a good starting point, that should be included in any change effort. But it is only one aspect.

Indeed, not all our behaviour is the result of conscious reasoning. A second influence on our choices is the beliefs we hold, and the mental shortcuts we apply automatically because we assume them to be true (also known as heuristics). They range from more personal (“age and length of tenure deserve more respect than your grade in the organization”) to implicit (“the company owes it to us to give us free tea and coffee”) and explicit organizational beliefs (“customer first”). They also include hard to pin down heuristics about the organization, like “corporate programmes are a waste of time and a huge resource drain”).

Beliefs correspond with strong preferences, and when they are being challenged, we react emotionally. A 2016 study by Kaplan et al found that our brain responds to threats to deeply held beliefs as if they were threats to our physical safety. So it is important to understand what the beliefs are that people feel are under attack by a proposed change, and that means looking beyond the glib ‘change resistance’ phrase.

Finally, sometimes our preferences don’t even come into it. Many of our choices are made unthinkingly under the influence of the context within which we work, or of cognitive biases. For example, we follow the herd: if most people in our department find excuses not to go to mandatory training, we will do so too (this is sometimes referred to as social norms). We may also repeat a course of action because it led to a good result previously, without verifying whether that outcome did indeed follow from our action (this is known as outcome bias).

(credits: Wilkernet/Free-Photos)

Is this type of habitual behaviour, if it goes against the aspirations of organizational change, ‘resistance’? Of course not. But if we don’t understand the reasoning behind it, that’s how it will look… and how can we then effectively address it?

Start from the trade-offs

When people don’t immediately turn into enthusiastic champions for a proposed change, that is not because they are ‘resistors’. It is because they would make different trade-offs. Some of these might be the result of reasoned deliberations, many more as a result of the emotions associated with their beliefs, or because of the context.

A well-designed change programme needs to look underneath the lazy cover of ‘change resistance’. People don’t make a simple choice between going with the change, and going against it.

Where they consciously reason, a change programme should look at how the costs and benefits can be adjusted, and ensure they are properly explained and communicated. But costs and benefits will not get you very far where behaviour is based on beliefs. A much more effective approach is to understand what they are, and positioning the proposed change so that it resonates well with them. Lastly, a change programme should recognize the role of context and biases. Adjust the context to make it easy for people to adopt the change, and take into account how biases affect their behaviour.

They say change is hard. Unpicking the simplistic view of ‘change resistance’ certainly means a lot more work for change managers. But in return, the rich picture that emerges means change programmes can be designed and executed with a lot more confidence, and with more successful outcomes.

So let’s retire a worn out, disrespectful and ineffective concept. So long, ‘resistance to change’ — goodbye and good riddance!

This article was written by Koen Smets and Paul Thoresen.

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