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Embracing Resistance to Change

©  Fred Nickols 2012


As a change leader, you can view resistance to change as a problem, as an obstacle, as a negative and as something to be overcome, crushed or otherwise disposed of.  Or, as an OD colleague of mine, John Scherer, is fond of pointing out, there is a positive side to resistance to change and those who would lead successful change efforts are well-served by tending to it.  I not only agree with John, I would add that those who call for others to embrace change can themselves profit from embracing resistance to change.  With that in mind, Iím going to use the rest of this post to elaborate on the notion of embracing resistance to change.

People resist change for a variety of reasons.  Their resistance can be reduced when change leaders truly understand, appreciate, acknowledge and address the factors and the forces behind that resistance.  By not taking these factors and forces into consideration or worse, by riding roughshod over the resisters, change leaders leave themselves and their changes open to sabotage Ė intentional or unintentional.  At best, they will realize no more than a partial or flawed or tardy implementation. 

As John points out, resistance to change serves several important purposes:

  • Resistance tests the commitment of those initiating the change.  Are they really serious this time?  Sometimes they are not.

  • Resistance is often based on valid viewpoints and important grains of truth that should be heard, understood and taken into account if the change is to succeed.  There is almost always some value in the resistorís perspective.  Even though resistance to change doesnít Ė nor should it Ė dictate what you as a change leader do, the reasons behind it should be taken into account and reflected in your actions.

  • Resistance can weed out bad ideas that are have not been thoroughly vetted or that might be little more than impulsive reactions to external events.  At the very least, some flaws in the grand ideas can be identified.

  • Resistance slows down the pace of change, buying time for the people and the organization to adjust more fully and to put in place the necessary infrastructure and systems needed to support the new, post-change reality.

  • Resistance provides an outlet for peopleís emotions and energy during a time of intense pressure; it is a convenient and useful safety valve.  Shutting down this safety valve allows the pressure to build unnecessarily, perhaps to explosive levels.

One thing I learned a long time ago is that resistance, especially if it is organized in any way, shape or form, surfaces the informal leaders in the organization Ė those whom other people follow regardless of their place in the hierarchy.  The support and commitment of these informal leaders is every bit as critical to a successful change effort as that of the formal leaders and identifying the informal leaders is a critical first step in working with them to obtain their support and commitment.

Resistance to change is neither bad nor is it necessarily a problem.  Resistance is evidence that people care about something and want to protect it.  Instead of finessing, suppressing or steam-rolling over resistance, try working to understand the basis of any resistance.  Doing so can actually improve a change effortís chances of success.

Of particular importance here is the obvious notion that resistance to change is also a defense of the organization as it is.  Resisters, then, can also be viewed as defenders.  As defenders, they have three important virtues: (1) they are quick to spot and point out any real threats to the organization posed by the changes being made; (2) they are especially likely to react negatively to changes that impair the sustainability of the existing organization; and (3) they are particularly sensitive to changes that suggest the change agents either donít understand or are indifferent to the core values of the organization.  In their defense of the organization as it is, resisters provide a great deal of information that is helpful to the change leader. 

It is true, in some organizations, that it is possible to simply dictate the changes to be made.  A few heads roll and then the survivors salute smartly and set to work carrying out their orders. However, this is evidence of compliance, not commitment.  If you think your organization can succeed with just a compliant instead of a committed workforce, you might opt for this seemingly quicker and easier approach.  However, it is much more likely the case that obtaining and sustaining high levels of employee commitment are crucial to your organizationís success now and in the future.

An added benefit from the effort to secure commitment from those who have to support and carry out intended changes is that they typically have a point of view not represented at headquarters.  This can produce useful suggestions on how to improve what has been planned.  In other words, attending to the factors underlying resistance to change is not only good change management practice but it makes good business sense as well.

A few words of caution: Donít be too hasty in quashing resistance to change or too quick to conclude it has been vanquished.  Any apparent knuckling under can be deceptive; the resistance and the resisters might simply go underground only to surface again later, perhaps at a most inopportune moment.

In conclusion, change leaders are more likely to be successful in their efforts to get others to embrace change if they will themselves demonstrate an ability to embrace resistance to change, to appreciate the positive aspects of resistance and to put those positive aspects of resistance to use in the service of the change being resisted. 


Fred Nickols is Managing Partner of Distance Consulting LLC.  He maintains a web site at www.nickols.us and his many free articles can be found at http://www.nickols.us/articles.html.  

John J. Scherer is the director of The Scherer Leadership Center (www.scherercenter.com) and author of the recently released book Five Questions that Change Everything (www.the5questions.com).



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This page last updated on June 27, 2015