In most cases, an organization of any sort cannot afford to remain static for an extended period. Change is vital for organizations, as the environments, goals, and capabilities also change. To remain viable or to outrun competition requires evolving with the times or adapting to the more volatile parts of the business. However, it is only natural that people in the organization resist change for as many reasons as there are people in the organization. As a result, poorly implemented change can cause employees to become disgruntled and even go as far as outright sabotage. To deal with this resistance to change effectively, one must know why it occurs.
The literature on organizational change and resistance to it spans decades, as it is a critical and broad topic. Kotter and Schlesinger (2008) propose several possible reasons why employees might be resistant to change. The first is self-interest, as a change threatens to remove something of value. For example, if a department was being restructured, and outside management was introduced, the existing managers would likely resist that change, as they would not want to become accountable to some outsider. Another reason for resisting change is that the employee fears change and feels anxiety over their ability to adapt to the new circumstances. Van Dijk and van Dick (2009) aptly classify these two as “person-oriented resistance to change,” as they stem from the employee’s own interests and emotions.
Another reason, according to Kotter and Schlesinger (2008) is misunderstanding and lack of trust, as people do not fully grasp the nature of the change, and resist their own interpretation of it, not trusting the management to have their interests in mind. For example, if a manager proposed to add a set of benefits to the existing reward structure, the employees could interpret that as a reduction in base pay. Another closely related reason for resistance stems from managers and employees having different information and different assessments of the situation. For example, if a manager invented new punitive safety standards for a plant full of experienced workers, they could resist these standards. They could be disruptive to their workflow and contrary to existing safety standards that are accepted across the industry and developed by actual experts, of which the manager was not aware. According to Oreg and Sverdlik (2011), these reasons could be explained by the employees’ negative assessment of the change agent. If the workers do not trust the manager, even if they feel ambivalent about the change itself, they are more likely to resist it.
There are reasons to believe that change resistance is often not related to the change itself, but the conversations surrounding it. Many workplaces are a highly social environment, and any goings-on can be perceived through the social lens. Ford, Ford, and McNamara (2002) explain how background conversations influence the conversations on the foreground. They also list the three archetypes of backgrounds that are resistant to change. The complacent background is that of people who are used to success and are convinced that change is unnecessary to keep succeeding. The resigned background is its polar opposite, and it resists change because nothing had worked in the past, and the employees blame themselves and their own inadequacy. The cynical background is also that of failure, but it ascribes failure to some external factor rather than the employees themselves.
Resistance to change is not necessarily a bad thing, just as change itself is not necessarily always good. Sometimes the workers are correct in not trusting the proposed change, as it can come from an untrustworthy source, or compromise the quality of their work, or may not be worth the trouble. Paton and McCalman (2000) explain that sometimes if there arises common, rational, and well-reasoned opposition to a proposed change, that could warrant a thorough examination of it. Moutousi and May (2018), in turn, propose an ethical angle, as some change can be unethical, or come from bad-faith actors. They differentiate between constructive and destructive ways to show resistance and explain how the passive or destructive approach can invalidate the resistance and solidify the change.
From examining this theory, several elements of resistance to change can be identified. Firstly, the employees’ and managers’ underlying wants and needs are always present, as are pre-existing relationships between workers and change agents. The beneficiaries of the status quo and its disruption are also identifiable before the change is implemented. Secondly, the background conversations are primarily informed by the company’s history and the employees’ attitude towards it and themselves. These conversations can create an insidious influence on change resistance, and they should be kept in check. Thirdly, the change itself can be harmful or beneficial to the company or a cohort of its workers, and having a good understanding of it can help predict resistance and its sources. Thus, to identify resistance to change in advance, one must have a grasp on the interests and needs of the workers, their moods and attitudes, and their relationships with their managers.
Change can be beneficial or harmful, it can come from well-liked or widely-despised actors, and it can fit into the narrative of exciting experimentation or resignation to failure. All employees are different: some care about their position, some care about the company’s future, and some care about the workplace as a community. Identifying these traits and relationships between actors on various levels can help predict resistance to particular changes, and that, in turn, can help communicate and implement it more effectively.
Ford, J. D., Ford, L. W., & McNamara, R. T. (2002). Resistance and the background conversations of change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 15(2), 105–121.
Kotter, J.P. & Schlesinger, L.A. (2008). Choosing strategies for change, Harvard Business Review, July/August.
Paton, R.A., and McCalman, J. (2000). Change Management: A Guide to Effective Implementation, 2nd ed., London, England: SAGE publications ltd.
Moutousi, O., & May, D. (2018). How change-related unethical leadership triggers follower resistance to change: A theoretical account and conceptual model. Journal of Change Management, 18(2), 142–161.
Oreg, S., & Sverdlik, N. (2011). Ambivalence toward imposed change: The conflict between dispositional resistance to change and the orientation toward the change agent. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(2), 337–349.
Van Dijk, R., & van Dick, R. (2009). Navigating organizational change: Change leaders, employee resistance and work-based identities. Journal of Change Management, 9(2), 143–163.