Resistance to Change at the Workplace

Learning objectives

On completion of this chapter you should be able to:

· Identify signs of resistance to change.

· Understand reasons for resistance to change.

· Be alert to resistance from within the ranks of management.

· Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to the management of resistance to change.

One of the commonly cited causes for the lack of success of organizational change is “resistance to change.” As such, it is not surprising that it is a phenomenon that encourages some strong responses. Maurer asserts, bluntly, that “resistance kills change,”1while Foote colorfully describes resistance as “one of the nastiest, most debilitating workplace cancers [and claims that] there isn’t a more potent, paradoxical or equal-opportunity killer of progress and good intentions.”2 In a similar vein, Geisler describes those with a pattern of resisting change as “bottom-feeders” who resist change because of its potential to remove the “waste” (infighting, inefficient processes) on which they “feed.”3

At the same time, other commentators have a more sympathetic “take” on resistance to change. A stark example in popular culture is the treatment of change in the Dilbert cartoons.4 (See Table 6.1.)

TABLE 6.1 The Dilbert Principle on Change

People hate change, and with good reason. Change makes us stupider, relatively speaking. Change adds new information to the universe, information that we don’t know…. On the other hand, change is good for people who are causing the change. They understand the new information that is being added to the universe. They grow smarter in comparison to the rest of us. This is reason enough to sabotage their efforts. I recommend sarcasm with a faint suggestion of threat.
Changer: “I hope that I can count on your support.”
You: “No problem. I’ll be delighted to jeopardize my short-term career goals to help you accomplish your career objectives.”
Changer: “That’s not exactly—”
You: “I don’t mind feeling like a confused rodent and working long hours, especially if the payoff is a new system that I vigorously argued against.”
The goal of change management is to dupe slow-witted employees into thinking change is good for them by appealing to their sense of adventure and love of challenge. This is like convincing a trout to leap out of a stream to experience the adventure of getting deboned.


Source: Adams, 1996:198.

Similarly, the image that one has of managing change is likely to be associated with a different perspective on the meaning of resistance (see Table 6.2).

TABLE 6.2 Images of Resistance to Change

Image of Managing Change Perspective on Resistance to Change
Director Resistance is a sign that not everybody is on board in terms of making the change. Resistance can and must be overcome in order to move change forward. Change managers need specific skills to ensure that they can deal with resistance to change.
Navigator Resistance is expected. It is not necessarily a sign of people being outside of their comfort zone so much as the fact that there are different interests within the organization and some of these may be undermined by the change. Resistance, therefore, will not always be able to be overcome although this should be achieved as much as possible.
Caretaker Resistance is possible but likely to be short-lived and ultimately futile. This is because, ultimately, changes will occur regardless of the attempts of individual actors within the organization to halt them. At best resistance might temporarily delay change but not be able to halt its inexorable impact.
Coach Resistance is something that needs to be recognized and expected as change takes people out of their comfort zone. Change managers need to work with resistance in a way that reveals to the resistor that such actions are not in accord with good teamwork within the organization.
Interpreter Resistance is likely where people lack understanding of “what is going on,” where the change is taking the organization, and what impact it will have on specific individuals. Making sense of the change, helping to clarify what it means, and reestablishing individual identity with the process and the expected outcome of the change will assist in addressing the underlying problems that led to the emergence of resistance.
Nurturer Resistance is largely irrelevant to whether or not change will occur. Changes will occur but not always in predictable ways. Therefore, resisting change will be largely a matter of guesswork by the resistor since change often emerges from the clash of chaotic forces and it is usually not possible to identify, predict, or control the direction of change.


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