Overcoming resistance to change – Five common misunderstandings

  • Failing to acknowledge the origins of this debate.
  • Biased/judgmental language frames thinking.
  • Stereotyping employees as villains and managers/leaders as heroes.
  • Neglecting relationships between readiness and resistance to change.
  • Underestimating resistance as an organizational change resource.

Failing to acknowledge the origins of this debate.

The best practice is to go back to the origins of a debate, to understand what might have been lost in the subsequent translation. The phrase ‘overcoming resistance to change’ appears to have been coined in a journal paper published in one of the earliest issues of the academic journal Human Relations.  What has been lost in translation is the pioneering research of Coch and French (1948) which revealed that participatory approaches to change were more likely to be effective.

It is possible for management to modify greatly or to remove completely group resistance to changes in methods of work and the ensuing piece rates. This change can be accomplished by the use of group meetings in which management effectively communicates the need for change and stimulates group participation in planning the changes. (Coch and French 1948: 531)           

Their research findings supported adopting a participative approach towards the implementation of organizational change.  However, it was the paper’s title ‘overcoming resistance to change’ which subsequently framed this debate.  If more people had read the original paper, the debate might not have been so one-sided.

Biased/judgmental language frames thinking.

Provocative language of resisting organizational change depicts such organizational activities as dysfunctional and unacceptable. In everyday life, we do not talk about the government and the resistance, it is the government and the opposition, resistance only tends to be referred to in times of war.

The inflammatory language of resisitance attributes blame for rejection (or even delay in acceptance) onto the potential recipients of the proposed change, simultaneously absolving change agents of blame.  Thinking and talking in terms of ‘responses’ rather than ‘resistance’ would be a more enlightened way to engage with complex organizational change processes.

Stereotyping employees as villains and managers/leaders as heroes.

Common depictions of overcoming resistance to change, stereotype employees as the villains and managers/leaders as the heroes of organizational change. If you choose to define employees as the problem, managers/leaders become the potential solution to this problem. This may explain the enduring promotion of ‘overcoming resistance to change’ over decades in parallel to increasing interest in managers and leaders as the agents of change.

I have been very critical of Kotter’s (1996/2012) Leading Change book (see this post). In this book, it is informative to look at examples of how he depicts resistors.

  • the key lies in understanding why organizations resist needed change… (Page 16),
  • Colin was typical of the foot draggers (Page 104),
  • these blockers stop needed action (Page 114),
  • …quick performance improvements undermine the efforts of cynics and major league
  • resisters (Page 123). 

Each time these resistors are disparaged as villains, notions of strong leadership and the value of leadership is inflated. Sometimes these depictions may be correct, but the implication is that the leaders are always the solution, they are never the problem.

Neglecting relationships between readiness and resistance to change.

Every individual, organization and organizational change is unique, we need to embrace, rather than ignore such diversity.  Embracing the goal of overcoming resistance to change, neglects many important contextual variables such as; individual differences, organizational settings, organizational sectors, national differences and different political/economic environments. Managing and leading change by definition looks to an imagined future, but the concern is that such a focus overlooks the recent past. A good illustration of this is the concept of change readiness. Armenakis and Harris (2009) highlighted an important yet often unasked question.

What do change recipients consider when making their decision to embrace and support a change effort or reject and resist it?

They identified five key change beliefs underpinning change recipients’ motives to change:

  • a change is required (the gap between the current state and as it should be).
  • the change designed to address the discrepancy is the correct choice.
  • the organization and the change recipient can implement the change effectively.
  • formal leaders (vertical change agents) are committed to the success of the change.
  • the change will be beneficial for the change recipient.

Engaging with readiness, rather than resistance, is not just far more subtle, it may prove more beneficial in facilitating successful organizational change.

Underestimating resistance as an organizational change resource.

We experience a degree of stability even in organizations undergoing significant organizational change, for example, enduring workplace friendships. At an individual level maintaining stability may be a rational response to change rather than irrational resistance.  If we choose to shop at another supermarket because a supermarket moves products to different aisles, is that wrong? Continuity and stability are aspects of everyday life, as well as, change and transition.

The five misunderstandings highlighted in this post often exist simultaneously. The implication isn’t that resistance is never problematic, but rather that resistance doesn’t always have to be overcome. If a loyal employee responds to a proposed organizational change through highlighting a potential problem, isn’t such engagement useful?

This post is based on a chapter from my textbook (see below).

References

Armenakis, A.A., and S.G. Harris. (2009). “Reflections: Our Journey in Organizational Change Research and Practice.” Journal of Change Management 9 (2): 127-142.

Coch, L., and J.R.P. French. (jnr). (1948). “Overcoming Resistance to Change.” Human Relations 1(4): 512-532.                            

Hughes, M. (2019) Chapter 13 – Resistance and Organizational Change Readiness in Managing and Leading Organizational Change. Routledge, London. 

Kotter, J.P. (1996/2012). Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

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