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Resistance to change

By Nwosu Ikechukwu and Nick Anderson

The research done on change management:

A comprehensive global research study on strategies for change management was conducted over ten months (March 2011-December 2011). 1072 people responded to a survey on the challenges faced by executives, change consultants, human resource leaders, and other professionals involved in change management initiatives. This article deals with their responses to the questions around why employees resist change.

Top reasons for employee’s resistance to change: 1072 professionals reporting.

resist-changeSince change management came into fashion, a litany of failure has left its mark. Our respondent’s on the change management research echo what many have gone through in the last 8 years. It seems through their eyes, resistance has to be viewed as a “brown field” site. Gone is the naiveté of “a job for life” and an enduring contract between leaders and other stakeholders. Now, change is synonymous with downsizing and doing more for less. Many respondents paint a picture of failed change, broken trust, fractured communication and poor leadership.

We summarized their comments into the following themes:

  • Cultural Toxicity of Failed Change.
  • “If people don’t trust you, what chance do you stand?”
  • “People can’t be bothered.”
  • “What’s in it for me?”
  • “Not knowing the purpose of it all” – a litany of communication failure.
  • Poor Leadership embeds and accelerates resistance

1. Cultural Toxicity of Failed Change.

Here’s a sampling of respondents comments on many failed attempts (15)

  • Sometimes there is change fatigue through too much change and unsuccessful change.
  • Employees are cynical due to mismanagement or over-selling of previous changes.
  • “Always threats, never window of opportunity seeing negative consequences of change and not being disabused by management”
  • “In the U.S., more often than not, change equals layoffs. For the employees that remain, it’s more work for the same pay”.
  • “An employee’s resistance to change is personal to them; it can be influenced with communications but ultimately it’s the employee’s call to change, which they can accept or refuse. Allowing people to come and go and find their rightful place should be the attitude of management. People who do match change will come, whilst people who don’t will go. It’s ok”
  • “Technology and change reduce the number of employees required without increasing in profitability.”
  • “Working as a team is key to overcoming resistance.”

2. Trust- “If people don’t trust you, what chance do you stand?"

    "They lack management sincerity when they try to “sell” change as good for people who (in fact)will be losing security and certainty."

While respondents didn’t make this link it seems a reasonable conclusion to draw that failed change breeds a lack of trust. Lack of trust in their leadership, in the promised outcome and in the value of change.

Here’s a sampling of what they said:

  • People love change. What they hate is loss, manipulation, coercion, arbitrary force or social engineering.
  • Fear of letting go of the old ways to allow or to trust something new.

2.1 FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt)

For some, the basis of resistance is fear, uncertainty and doubt.

For example:

  • People resist change they are not in control of.
  • Fear of losing their job.
  • Fear of other’s opinion.
  • Fear of losing status.
  • “……employees do not like to go with the flow as it oftentimes makes them feel less capable. There is fear associated with their ability to do new things successfully.
  • “Dread of loss of competence and personal identity associated with that”
  • “Not knowing the scope agreed on contractually”
  • “Dis empowerment… The way the change is rolled out and lack of meaningful consultation”

2.2 Lack of Respect

Another aspect of mistrust is the lack of respect their management has of employees. For example:

"Management has a tendency to assume employees lack intelligence."
  • Leaders don’t trust employees and their loyalty to the organization.
  • Leaders need to respect people more and help them find their way.


2.3 Lack of role Clarity

Respondents talk of:

  • “A lack of awareness of their role/responsibility in new organizational structure”
  • “A lack of understanding of one’s own role or responsibility”
  • “No rewards or consequences for changing.”
  • “A lack of clarity on how the change is affecting my personal work”
  • “If employees understand the need for change and how it will affect them, they will be more willing to adapt.”

3. “People can’t be bothered.”

In contrast some respondents of the change management research felt that resistance to change lay in the people rather than the change process itself. It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg – we don’t know what came first but here are some comments to get another perspective on change resistance:

  • “People do not like change…positive attitude to change is missing.
  • People can’t be bothered. “Much of my corporate life was in a company where many of us did this, and it showed.”
  • Many people are lazy and change implies extra effort.
  • Employees working for a company for a long time are stuck, and too lazy to move.”
  • “Some people fight change by their nature, while others embrace change – it’s how we are wired.
  • One person concludes that “there are change lovers, those who will change under pressure and those that will never change, not even “under immense threat and pressure.”
  • “It means some people must be let go immediately, as change follows change”
  • “People lack common sense, digging heals in and not wanting to see reality or truth”
  • “Sometimes it is the absence of “Will to perform” which also results in resistance.”

4. “What’s in it for me?”

Many of the factors of resistance to change cloud people’s ability or willingness to answer this question. Here are some respondent comments:

  • Need to demonstrate real-world applications of the change to their day-to-day lives.
  • “The case (for change) is often not made in terms of the individual…”
  • “Not knowing “what’s in it for me.” (WIIFM)”
  • Not understanding what’s in it for them.
  • The benefits they will receive from the change do not match the effort that will be required of them.
  • “Risk assessments in the minds of most don’t link it to potential opportunities.”

5. “Not knowing the purpose of it all” – a litany of communication failure.

The respondents from our change management research highlight the gap between what is in leaders’ minds and employee’s grasp of the change. Respondents draw distinctions between insufficient, inconsistent and inappropriate communication. For example:

  • Inappropriate communication, like too much emphasis on what goes bad and needs improvement.
  • “Not enough support or understanding how exactly to function well in changed environment or job.”
  • “Changes are considered proprietary by top management yet without collaboration chances for communication failure increase.”
  • We all need things explained in different ways – some need facts, some need details, some need support and consultation and other need ideas and possibilities.”
  • “If you don’t understand the staff’s communication styles you will be in a worse position.
  • “Not understanding what the change means in specific terms, so one can adapt.”
  • “The employees will not fear change when they understand that they are an important part of making change successful.”

And finally, a dominant theme of respondents’ when commenting on poor communication:

  • Leader’s inability to develop a shared understanding of their change strategy.
  • Leaders lack of involvement in both planning and implementation.

5.1 Lack of Involvement

Many respondents imply that “no one is naturally resistant to change.” For them resistance means leaders have not found “an effective way of partnering with people in the change journey.”

The lack of involvement for many reinforces a negative view of leader’s inability or unwillingness to involve others: For example:

  • Not being part of the decision process and not being given a “stake in it.” This results in comments like:
    • “being ‘done to’”
    • “not feeling you matter”
    • “taking it personally”

Other comments are more specific as to when they want to be involved, like:

  • “Not being involved in change preparation in initiating and planning.”
  • “Not getting those affected involved in the problem solving quickly enough.”

6. Poor Leadership embeds and accelerates resistance to change.

The most commented area was how poor leadership embeds and accelerates resistance to change. Respondent comments seem to come down to:

  • Poor change management.
  • A basic lack of leadership skills.
  • Leaders attitudes to their work and those they lead.

6.1 Poor Change Management.

Several respondents criticized their leaders in terms of the structure, planning and execution of change processes (9)

  • Resistance “stems from a weak value system (and) communication about what people will lose with the change." "People are down on what they are not up on”. "Clearly defined values with accountability fuels the mission. Values guide our interactions."
  • Lack of coherence in various change initiatives with a lack of coordination.”
  • “Lack of follow through with previous changes before they switch gears again.”
  • Poor preparation of both stakeholders of change and in developing change sponsors.
  • “No support for the new management.”
“Not enough support and understanding of how exactly to function well in changed environment or job.”
  • “Not anticipating the time needed to get people on board.”
  • “Not setting up requirements and expectations and not selling them properly…”
  • “Imposed change that happens without transition.”
  • “No capacity to deal with change and the training required to make it work.”

6.2 Lack of Leadership Skills.

Some respondents seemed to differentiate the change process from the leader’s behavior during the change process. Here are some typical examples of this lack of consistency:

  • “Buy-in at the top not clear.”
  • “If employees get consistent messages from all levels they will move with the change.”
  • “It only takes one manager to be not on board and the whole process can be unraveled.”
  • “Resistance to change occurs at top level of management (owners) first.”
  • “If change can be avoided they will push all the way.”
  • “Our leadership culture that is always following the latest “flavor of the day” (manufactured) change ideas.”

Others comment on the lack of basic leadership skills:

  • “Too much emphasis on what goes bad and needs improvement.”
  • “Management has a tendency to assume the lack of intelligence of its employees.
  • "There is also a lack of communication, trust and a sense of belonging.”
  • “Lack of Leadership skills to take employees on the journey.”
  • “Stale managers who fear change, who want to control their empire, and who are afraid of change agents.”
  • “Not seeing leaders walk the talk.”
  • “Weak and ineffective leadership from ineffectual leaders.”

7. Conclusion - results of our change management research

The accelerated rate of organizational change accelerates demands on everyone. Organizational restructures have major consequences for employees. Accelerated change failure creates cultural toxicity. That’s why many experience feelings of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt) when they detect another change is on the way.

Here’s the reality of this survey (and many others.) Leaders need employee support and trust if there change is going to stand any chance of success (Duh!). Our results underscore this. If people are cynical about a change, pessimism will set in, and failure will be just a “hair’s breadth” away.

Clearly our findings show the multi-faceted nature of what leaders need to assess when planning and implementing change. There are no simple remedies, no sound bites or grizzly 7 step plan. Yet at its core there are fundamental values that if believed in will provide a sound basis for planning and executing change.

7.1 Core Values for managing change successfully

  • Mutual Respect – leaders for their people and people’s for their leaders. If leaders think their people “Don’t Get It” guess what? They won’t!
  • Fairness– being consistent and transparent is crucial to let those who remain see their leaders act fairly.
  • Clarity of direction – Ensuring everyone knows the What, Why & How of a change.
  • Not everyone can be “on the bus” – The corporate good is not served by those who don’t want to give change their best try, at least for a period. So, it takes courage to deal with those who refuse to change.
  • Multi-faceted Communication – Using different communication approaches and media to help engage people. Not simply telling them where to be on Monday at 800am.

About the researchers

Nwosu Kelly

Nwosu KellyKelly is a Principal of New Catalyst LLC, where he led a research project focusing on strategies for managing change with 1072 professionals and 80 countries participated in this study. As a research and consulting firm, New Catalyst help organizations to build change management competence and tools needed to drive change and attain sustainable result. His website is

Nick AndersonNick Anderson is a consultant at New Catalyst LLC. His focus is to illuminate the links between behaviour change, improved performance and organizational change. After leading behavioural research and productivity projects over more than 20 years has deepened his understanding of what takes to align people for change - Getting People on the Same Page. He is passionate about impacting bottom-line results through changing behaviour and increasing their competitive advantage.

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