Change Thinking

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How to Use Commitment to Understand Resistance

Categories: Resistance

This is the last post in this series on resistance. I’ve discussed the inevitability of resistance in major change, and how lack of predictability and loss of control factor into the amount of resistance that manifests. In the last two posts, I described two of the three models I use to help clients understand and deal with resistance to change. In this post, I’ll describe a third, and offer a free download of a tool I use to help targets express their concern about particular change initiatives.

The third model I use to help clients better understand resistance requires a bit of paradoxical thinking because it involves utilizing commitment as a doorway to seeing the dynamics of resistance. I have already published a series that was dedicated to building commitment to change. In it, I outlined the Commitment Curve model.


Rather than restate all the resistance-related issues and implications surfaced in the series, I recommend you review the posts in that series for additional perspectives on how and when resistance is formed.

Here are a few examples of resistance dynamics revealed through a commitment lens:

Resistance can’t exist prior to reaching the “disposition threshold.” People may be “unaware” or “confused,” but actual resistance can’t materialize until they form an opinion. They must believe they have gained enough information or impressions to “understand” (from their perspective) what is happening. If that understanding has created a “negative perception” about the change or the people driving it, resistance in some form (strong/weak, overt/covert) is the likely response.

  • Beyond the disposition threshold, other junctures where resistance is an option are:

-   Positive perceptions, leading to inaction,

-   Experimentation, leading to rejection, and

-   Adoption, leading to termination.

  • Resistance can and does form at the institutionalization and internalization levels as well. Even though these two stages are noted for being in the “no reversibility” zone, that doesn’t mean resistance doesn’t occur. It means that the sponsor’s response to any pushback should be much more adamant than in earlier stages. By this point in the process, leaders have declared that the change will proceed, regardless of any opposition. The only variable is whether the sponsors take the institutionalization route and choose to overpower the resistance with compliance-centric maneuvers (going for bodies, not souls), or the internalization path and try to foster mindset and behavior shifts (going for bodies and souls).
  • Though most people think resistance stems from the targets of change, all roles are subject to becoming resistant to the intended outcomes because all the roles are populated by humans in transition who are having their expectations disrupted on a routine basis. In fact, some of the strongest pushback often comes from the very sponsors who are initiating a change. The best way to relate to this is to remember that all are targets before assuming any other role. 

Surfacing Resistance

In addition to the three models (described in this series) that I rely on to help my clients (and me) understand the resistance dynamics they face, I’d like to share a tool, the Change Resistance Scale, that we sometimes use to help targets articulate their concerns and frustrations regarding a particular initiative. I first constructed and started using these questions in 1978, and over the years have applied them to thousands of clients and hundreds of thousands of targets. The tool is a reliable way to foster a two-way exchange between leaders and those being impacted by change.

When using this tool, candor is critical to producing meaningful results. If leadership sets the stage so people are confident that honesty about their impressions of the project is best for them and the organization, it works great. The resulting dialogue between sponsors and targets can be extremely helpful in identifying and often mitigating certain sources of resistance. Here is the link to the Change Resistance Scale. Please consider sharing any resistance-related tools you have found particularly helpful.

Series Summary: Expect Resistance and Learn to Leverage It to Ensure Change Success

I shared the three models I use most often when helping clients gain an appreciation for the underlying dynamics of resistance and how they might use them to address disenchantment and antagonism.

  • Positively perceived change
  • Negatively perceived change
  • The various degrees of commitment

The objective in using any of these frameworks is to convert the negative energy associated with resistance into an advantage for moving the organization toward full realization of the intended change outcomes.

Here are some of the more important perspectives that were reviewed:

  • Resistance occurs when people view their challenges to be greater than their capabilities, or vice versa.
  • Change is perceived to be positive when people feel in control of what is going on. This sense of control is fostered by being able to accurately anticipate events and influence the environment (or at least prepare for the consequences).
  • Resistance to major change occurs regardless of whether change is initially perceived as positive or negative and without regard to whether it is self-initiated or brought on by others.
  • Unless people are free to express their reservations about an impending change, deep resolve for an initiative’s success will be inhibited. Doubt is actually an important aspect to the commitment-building process, so when resistance is surfaced in productive ways, it helps turn skepticism into support.  

With transformational change, some degree of resistance is unavoidable. In fact, if you are not seeing any resistance, there are only two explanations—the change is either being superficially installed or the resistance has gone underground.

Finally, here are some key reminders when dealing with resistance:

  • Gain confidence in the fact that, although resistance can be challenging to deal with, it is your ally when it comes to orchestrating realization outcomes.
  • View resistance as a valuable source of information about the risks to realization prognosis.
  • Find models you can use to help you and your clients understand when, how, and why resistance forms and what can be done about it.
  • Have access to multiple methods and tools you can use to help your client surface resistance. Help sponsors provide an environment—and channels—that allow it to be discussed in a safe and productive way.
  • A great deal of emotional investment is necessary to achieve the desired outcome of strategic initiatives. Intellectual commitment typically precedes emotional commitment and thus, in some ways, is easier to come by. That is, people may quickly grasp the implications of a change at a rational level but then find that they need more time and effort to make the necessary emotional adjustments.
  • Don’t allow resistance to become a detour that keeps your client from moving forward. Not every expression of resistance is appropriate, nor should it be allowed to continue to the point of jeopardizing realization.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Next I'll discuss practitioner confidence--a subject I suspect many of us can relate to.

Posted on: May 08, 2012 11:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sometimes People HATE the Change

Categories: Resistance

In this series, I’m talking about resistance to change—a natural reaction to a disruption in expectations as well as feeling loss of control. In the last post, I began describing three models I use to explain to clients what happens when people resist change:

  • One describes the sequence that develops when people resist after having an initial positive reaction to change.
  • Another describes the sequence that develops when people react negatively to change from the beginning (see below).
  • A third one uses commitment as a lens through which resistance can be better understood. (I’ll describe that one in the next post.) 

The Response to Negatively Perceived Change

It doesn’t matter whether a change is originally seen as positive or negative; when people’s expectations are significantly disrupted, the result is resistance. However, the way people manifest their resistance differs according to how they view the change. Major transitions that are applauded at the beginning (the model I described in the last post) follow a pattern distinct from those that are disliked at first.

The most insightful work on the dynamics of negatively perceived change was originated by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. A psychiatrist by training, Kübler-Ross interviewed several hundred terminally ill patients and their families, eventually developing a means for understanding the process that people undergo as they come to terms with impending death. (This was first described in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.) According to her model, people evolve through a series of stages as they confront their own mortality or that of a loved one.

I had the good fortune of being exposed to Dr. Kübler-Ross and her concepts early in my clinical psychology training. In 1972, when I began to shift my focus from clinical psychology to organizational change, I was surprised to find that her model was just as applicable to the corporate world as it was to a clinical environment.

I found the emotional highs and lows in her model to be less intense in organizational settings. The sequence of the stages, however, was as relevant for executives who had to lay off valued, long-term employees (and for the employees themselves) as it had been for families of the terminally ill. I realized then that Dr. Kübler-Ross had not simply developed a model for understanding the adjustment to death, but she had also provided a way of understanding any negative change that we face but cannot control. By 1974, I had modified her model slightly so it would be easier for executives to relate to it and I receive a great deal of affirmation from leaders about its value in understanding resistance.

In more recent years, her work has gained renown among organizational change practitioners throughout the world as a way to understand and manage negatively perceived change. Because of the frequency with which this model has been cited and explored in change-management literature, it is only necessary to highlight the key elements here.

Expanding on Kübler-Ross’s five-stage model, I identified eight distinctive stages through which people pass whenever they feel trapped in a change they don’t want and can’t control. These stages are stability, immobilization, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance.

The model is shown below. The horizontal axis represents the length of time that the person has been aware of the change, and the vertical axis reflects the level of emotional activity that is displayed, ranging from passive to active.

Resistance-Post 4

Phase I—Stability

This phase precedes the announcement of the change. It represents the present state, or status quo.

Phase II—Immobilization

The initial reaction to a negatively perceived change is shock. Reactions in this phase may vary from temporary confusion to complete disorientation. Here, the impact of change is so alien to the person’s frame of reference that he or she is often unable to relate to what is happening.

Phase III—Denial

This phase is characterized by an inability to assimilate new information into the current frame of reference. At this stage, change-related information is often rejected or ignored. Common reactions are, “It won’t happen to me (us).” or “Don’t overact; it will go away.”

Phase IV—Anger

This phase is characterized by frustration and hurt, often manifested through irrational, indiscriminate lashing out. These emotions are typically directed at those in close proximity, who also are usually the ones most willing to be supportive, such as family, friends, medical staff, etc. for personal change. So it is not uncommon for those closest to the person to be blamed, criticized, and treated with hostility.

Phase V—Bargaining

Here, people begin negotiating to avoid as much of the negative implications as possible. Bargaining takes many forms (e.g., requests for deadline extensions, reassignments, giving up some prior benefits—but not all, etc.). This point in the process signals that an individual can no longer avoid a confrontation with reality. All earlier phases involve different forms of denial. This phase marks the very beginning of acceptance.

Phase VI—Depression

Depression is a normal response to major, negatively perceived change. The full extent of clinical depression (helplessness and hopelessness) is not usually found in organized settings, but resignation to failure, feeling victimized, a lack of emotional and physical energy, and disengagement from one’s work are likely symptoms.

Although it is an unpleasant experience, depression can represent a positive step in the acceptance process. At this point, the full weight of the negative change is finally acknowledged. Given the perceived severity of the consequences, the fact that someone would respond in this manner should not come as a surprise. It may be an uncomfortable period, but it is quite normal for these feelings to surface.

Phase VII—Testing

Regaining a sense of control helps people free themselves from feelings of victimization and depression. They do this by acknowledging the new limitations while also exploring ways to redefine goals; this makes it possible to recalibrate new expectations so success within new boundaries is possible.

Phase VIII—Acceptance

At this point, people can respond to the change realistically. Acceptance, however, is not synonymous with liking what is happening. It just means that the person is now more grounded and productive within the new context. It is likely that people who have reached this phase may never agree with or like what has happened, but they are committed to ensuring that they leverage the situation as much as possible to their advantage.

Working with targets as they pass through the negative-response model is an intense process because providing the appropriate support at each phase consumes time and energy. Nevertheless, the failure of a key person to complete the sequence can be even more costly. There is no guarantee that people will move successfully through each of the phases, but they have the best chance when they are led by sponsors who understand the dynamics being played out.

Although the dynamics of negatively perceived organizational change are less intense than the grief associated with a death, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s eight-stage model has proven to be highly adaptable to helping people who feel trapped in a change they don’t want and can’t control.

In my next post, I’ll talk about a third model for understanding and dealing with resistance. I’ll also share a tool for helping targets articulate their concerns and frustrations regarding a particular initiative.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: May 01, 2012 11:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Change Is Easy When People Like It, Right?

Categories: Resistance

In the previous post, I described resistance to change as a natural reaction to a disruption in expectations as well as feeling a loss of control. As such, resistance accompanies all major change. It doesn’t matter whether it is self-initiated or invoked by others, or if the change is perceived as positive or negative. It’s beneficial for clients if practitioners can frame something that is inevitable in a way that can be leveraged into an advantage for realizing change objectives. In that regard, this series is devoted to focusing on how resistance can be used to foster commitment to intended outcomes rather than inhibit change progress.

Three Frameworks for Understanding Resistance

One way we can help clients leverage resistance to their advantage is to provide them with frameworks to understand what’s in play when people oppose major change initiatives. The more we can demystify the dynamics of resistance for them, the better they will be able to orchestrate events and circumstances toward realization outcomes.

As I’m sure is true for you, I have models I rely on to help me diagnose resistance and inform clients about how resistance actually unfolds. I’ll offer a couple of them here and I encourage you to share with our readers some of the ones you use with clients.

In various situations, I draw on different ways to explain what happens when people withhold their support or actually push back against change. There are three models, however, that I use with clients the most: One describes the sequence that develops when people resist after having an initial positive reaction to change (outlined in this post).

  • Another describes the sequence that develops when people react negatively to change from the beginning (to be addressed in the next post).
  • A third one uses commitment as a lens through which resistance can be better understood (reviewed in the last post in this series). 

There’s An Emotional Response to Positively Perceived Change

My first memory of seeing people resist a positive change was in 1969 when I served on the staff of an Army rehabilitation center for drug and alcohol abuse. I was amazed to see the high divorce rate that took place soon after soldiers entered the program and began the recovery process. I couldn’t figure out why the wife (in those days, our patients were all men) of an alcoholic would put up with her husband’s destructive behavior for years only to file for divorce as he began to regain control of his life.

What eventually became clear was that because the husband was succeeding with sobriety (what the wife had been dreaming of for years) she now had to adjust to his reemergence into the family structure. She had been making economic decisions and providing sole parental guidance to the children for a long time. But once he was fully functioning again, he wanted to participate in these activities. She finally got what she wanted, but it came with a power struggle neither of them was prepared to handle. From her standpoint, although her husband’s improved behavior and health was welcomed, she was not willing to surrender her hard-won autonomy. The marital roles and family hierarchy became subject to unexpected redefinition. The subsequent power struggle resulted in more pessimism for both husband and wife than either could recover from, which ultimately played itself out in a divorce.

Years later, when I was first helping organizations implement key initiatives, this same sort of situation reappeared. I noticed that people who originally perceived a major change as positive, but later became disenchanted, followed a separate path of resistance than those who saw it as negative from the outset.

After observing this phenomenon for a number of years, I was finally able to describe the phases people go through when they originally embrace a change perceived to be beneficial, but resist it later.[1] The five phases are:

  • Uninformed optimism
  • Informed pessimism
  • Hopeful realism
  • Informed optimism
  • Completion

In the graphic below, the horizontal axis represents time, but the vertical axis reflects the degree of discomfort or pessimism felt toward the change.

Resistance-Post 3 graphic

Phase I—Uninformed Optimism

Marriage is a classic example of a major positive change that people think is wonderful in the beginning but then have trouble adjusting to. When people first get married, they haven’t spent much “married” time together, so they are on the left-hand side of the time continuum. And they are on the low end of the pessimism scale because they feel extremely positive about each other and their decision to be together. Instead of the “honeymoon,” I call this phase “uninformed optimism.” Think of it as naïve enthusiasm based on insufficient data.

The same is true for decisions to pursue major, highly advantageous change—they are always based on information that will later prove to be inadequate. As the change unfolds, people learn that a great deal of what they were promised does not come to pass, and much for which they were not prepared begins to take place.

Phase II—Informed Pessimism

Over time, the married couple discovers some of the real implications for their change decision. He learns how often she wants to eat out; she learns how often he wants to play golf. They begin to realize that, while their overall decision may have been a good one, there are significant downsides to their decision that they did not expect. Once again, organizations fall into the same pattern. The reorganization or new technology that appeared so perfect when the decision to proceed was finalized later turns into struggles and challenges no one saw coming.

There is no way to avoid this second phase of the process; it comes from the inevitable learning that takes place once people engage what appears to be a positive change and find out it is more difficult to execute than anticipated. “Informed pessimism” always follows uninformed optimism, and with it comes some degree of doubt and second-guessing.

The informed-pessimism stage is particularly important because every person has a certain tolerance for pessimism. If a person’s disenchantment exceeds that tolerance level, “checking out” occurs. Informed pessimism is about doubt and reluctance; checking out is about withdrawing from the change decision. Both are forms of resistance, but by the time checking out starts to take place, the dissention can have a meaningful adverse impact on realizing the ultimate desired outcomes.

Checking out manifests itself either publicly or privately. People check out publicly when they are overt about their lack of confidence in moving forward. In the marriage situation, an example of public checking out is the delivery of a blunt statement such as, “I want a divorce.” The organizational equivalent of publicly checking out takes place when people are open and explicit about their newfound discontent. They might freely state things like, “Considering what we’ve recently learned, we’d better rethink our decision to move ahead.”

The alternative is for people to check out privately by going underground with their detachment. Many couples in this situation go through the mechanics of their marriage as if everything is fine, but the genuine exchange of love, and respect for each other is gone: “What do you mean we need counseling? I don’t see any problems in our relationship.” The organizational version of this is to say, “Great idea! Let’s do that!” when in the presence of particular leaders, and “No way am I doing that!” when in front of others. 

Both types of checking out jeopardize the success of a project, but the public form is clearly less destructive than the private. At least with public checking out, there is an acknowledgment of the problems. With private checking out, true concerns and emotions are dangerously hidden.

Although informed pessimism is inevitable, checking out is not. Whether or not a person checks out depends on each individual’s tolerance for pessimism. Some people are ready for a divorce within months of getting married; others can engage in decades of destructive behavior toward each other and never seriously consider separating.

Phase III—Hopeful Realism

If checking out never takes place or if it occurs openly and the problems are brought to the surface and resolved, the concerns raised during informed pessimism have a chance to taper off. When this happens, the pessimism does not suddenly disappear. Instead, it gradually lessens and people progressively move into “hopeful realism.” This phase isn’t a return to the naïve “Everything is wonderful” days of uninformed optimism; it simply means that people are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

In the hopeful realism stage, people still have a great number of issues to handle, but they begin to feel as if “Maybe we can pull this thing off.”

Phase IV—Informed Optimism

As more and more concerns are resolved, people become increasingly confident and move into the “informed-optimism” stage. This stage reflects a stronger confidence in the change—one that has been earned through trial by fire.

Phase V—Completion

Once completion is reached, individuals are stabilized in the new status quo. It is only by advancing to this stage that installation or realization is possible.


There are many implications to be drawn from the model. Here are three I emphasize with clients most often:

Reoccurring Cycles

Significant change projects don’t experience just one pass through this model. About the time informed optimism sets in, new decisions are made about another aspect of the implementation process. If any of these determinations mean yet another departure from what was expected, in all likelihood the judgment to move ahead will spawn a new round of uninformed optimism, and the cycle will begin again.

Sober Selling

Clients can sometimes be particularly vulnerable to “panacea merchants”…people inside and outside organizations who exploit leaders’ fantasies that few problems will accompany the implementation of badly needed change. Of course, the reality is that any change that ushers in meaningful benefits has more complications to its execution than meet the eye.

As professional facilitators of change, our responsibility is to foster “sober buying” of change by our clients, regardless of how it is being sold. Early on, when a project is still under consideration and enthusiasm is running high, we should inform the decision makers about the true costs of the change. “This is a wonderful change but nothing in life that’s this good is cheap. To fully realize the benefits you will be promising the board, there are some extremely high financial, emotional, and political costs involved in the implementation that you’ll need to be prepared to address. For example….”

Helping your clients soberly buy change (meaning being as informed as possible) not only increases the likelihood that they will get through the informed-pessimism stage, it establishes early on whether or not they have the resolve and/or the resources to move through the entire process. But there is also a risk associated with this approach. If you accurately and honestly portray the real price of change, your client may not attempt it. Many leaders are only interested in a significant endeavor because they don’t have a clue of what the real price tag is for their aspirations.

Here is a final note about sober buying of change. If, after ensuring your client takes a hard look at as many implementation difficulties and costs as possible, they still want to proceed ahead with the project, there is one more responsibility you have. Do what you can to ensure they recognize that all the due diligence in the world can’t completely prepare them for true transformational change. If, despite the challenges, they want to continue, it means they have limited their informed optimism vulnerability, but not eliminated it. Even with all the sobering information they now have, the actual experience of bringing their project to full realization will be much more difficult than they can see at this point. If they advance forward, they should do so, knowing that there is much left they don’t know. They will be surprised by the many unanticipated barriers and delays that lie ahead, but with your warning, they may not be caught off-guard as much when these surprises occur.

Beyond Change Execution

Our profession is played out in organizational settings, but since we are ultimately facilitating humans in transition, the messages we convey apply to personal change as well as social-level transitions. When using this model with clients, I try to leave them with more than just a reliable description for how enthusiasm for organizational change can turn into resistance. Whenever possible, I look for opportunities to convey broader potential utilization.

For example—many people devote a great deal of their lives trying to hit “home runs” (solutions that represent tremendous benefit, but that are relatively inexpensive and pose little risk). This model suggests that anytime we find answers in our personal as well as organizational lives that seem to fit these criteria, in all likelihood it is an illusion. Anything of real value has a price tag. We are not obligated to buy what we say we want, but if we do, an invoice will soon follow. Naiveté—thinking that perfection sought can be inexpensively obtained—often leaves us unprepared for the inevitable doubt and disenchantment (resistance) that develops after we start the journey and the bills come due.

The lesson here is, “Be careful of what you pray for because you might get it.”

The Bottom Line

There are no panaceas when it comes to major change in our lives (regardless of the setting). Whenever we embark on significant endeavors that look extremely positive at the beginning, we are probably going to find that they are more difficult and expensive than we anticipated. If the financial, logistic, emotional, or relationship cost turns out to be too high, we can withdraw from the decision. On the other hand, if the doubt and subsequent pessimism that inevitably arises does not exceed our tolerance level, we have a greater chance of resolving our concerns and moving ahead. One thing is certain for all of us; we either pay for getting what we want, or we pay for not getting what we want. But we will pay.

[1] My thanks to consultant and poet Don Kelly for his insight and willingness in 1974 to introduce me to this way of viewing the negative implications of positive change.

Next: Sometimes People HATE the Change
Posted on: April 24, 2012 03:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

People Love Change—As Long As They Can Predict and Control It

Categories: Resistance

 In my last post, I addressed the inevitability of resistance in transformational change. In this entry, I want to set a context for resistance as I see it. In particular, I’ll be emphasizing the importance that predictability and a sense of control have on the resistance experience.

Predictability and Control

Resistance is about counter-pressure, so let’s be clear regarding what the opposition is directed toward. Resistance is the force that tries to thwart modifications in the status quo—change.

I know I’m covering ground we are all familiar with, but we sometimes lose sight of what we’ve become accustomed to. Let’s review some of the basic mechanics about change as a process.

The kind of change we are talking about here is an organization’s movement from the mindsets and behaviors of the present state to a new desired state. To achieve this progression, the people involved must do the following: 

  1. Leave the familiarity of the present state
  2. Pass through a transition state (characterized by uncertainty and insecurity)
  3. Gravitate to a new configuration of mindsets/behaviors

All three phases have their hardships and obstacles, but most of the time, the transition state is the most difficult for people to navigate. That’s because it requires confronting the scariest of anxieties—the loss of feeling in control.

There are many useful perspectives on resistance that help change agents understand its multi-faceted dynamics. One lens that many practitioners are less familiar with is the feeling of loss of control that causes people to push back against change. For this reason, I’m devoting this post to the relationship between predictability/control, and resistance. 

When the challenges we encounter (problems or opportunities) match well with our capabilities, we can usually predict, to some degree, what the outcome of a situation will be. This ability to anticipate and prepare for what is to come gives us a sense of being in control.

Even when what is foreseen has adverse implications, people usually feel more able to manage the dynamics they are facing if they have had some time to assess the situation and mobilize their resources. When the challenges are greater than our capabilities, this balance is upset and they are typically less likely to anticipate what will happen accurately. For most people, the experience is that of feeling overwhelmed—too many unexpected things occurring too fast to process, so they no longer have the ability to anticipate and prepare. Once the challenge/capability equilibrium breaks down, expectations no longer coincide with perceptions and change is at hand.

At the heart of the struggle with change is the discomfort felt when expectations don’t match reality. It is hard to overstate how frightening it is for most people to lose their sense of control over external events or their internal emotions. Whether conscious of it or not, most people want to be able to influence themselves and the people and things in their lives. This is such a powerful force that the vast majority of people will consistently choose to stay in familiar situations that they know are not working rather than face the ambiguity of the unknown. If stability is when expectations are met, and change is when expectations run counter to what is happening or will happen, then resistance is about the struggle against recalibrating those expectations—“I want reality to conform to my expectations rather than the other way around.”

In fact, it can be said that the net/net of our profession is that we facilitate the human experience of encountering unmet expectations and help people recast new ones so they can have success in the emerging circumstances.

People perceive change as positive or negative not only because of the actual outcomes of an event, but also based on the degree of predictability and control they believe they exert in situations. The feeling of well-being that comes from perceiving that a change is going to be helpful is the result of more than simply getting what we want. Fundamental to these feelings of comfort is the satisfaction that stems from our ability to predict what will happen. When change is perceived to be harmful, it’s not only because of its unwanted effect, it’s also about our inability to foresee and to some extent prepare for what is to come.

Anticipating and fortifying ourselves for the future, even if that future appears undesirable, fosters a sense of control. Therefore, experiencing predictability and control (or not), is a critical indicator of whether or not resistance will surface.

Misconceptions about Resistance

Accurately predicting the future reduces uncertainty and promotes a sense of control. We are a species that places a high value on controlling the variables in our lives, so prognosticating   events and circumstances is of utmost importance to us. It follows, then, that disrupting someone’s expectations about issues important to him or her will elicit a strong negative reaction—resistance.

Practitioners who don’t take expectation fulfillment and the need for feeling in control into account when thinking about resistance tend to formulate some unfortunate misconceptions. Here are some examples:

 Misconception graphic

These kinds of misconceptions make change more of a mystery and less effective than it needs to be. When it comes to bracing clients for the amount of resistance they will face, it doesn’t matter if the change costs a great deal of money or very little. It doesn’t matter if the change is initially seen as positive or negative. Nor does it matter if targets think they are primed for what is about to take place. Even engaging targets in the change process can’t fully stem the tide. The only thing that really matters when it comes to helping clients gauge oncoming resistance is how disruptive the change will be to the expectations people already have in place. The greater the disruption of expectations, the more resistance will be a factor during implementation.


The ability of our species to accurately anticipate what is in store for us holds more than a little importance. At the heart of resistance is our struggle to exercise control in our lives. When current reality differs only slightly from what people expect, they usually believe they can accurately predict unfolding events and thus have some degree of control (to at least prepare for, if not alter, impending circumstances). When there is a significant mismatch between expectations and what seems to be happening, people become disoriented, and that triggers resistance. When this happens, they don’t resist the intrusion of something new into their lives as much as they resist the resulting loss of control. The key difference between experiencing equilibrium and chaos is not the volume, momentum, and complexity of change we are exposed to, but the degree to which our expectations are met. In fact, the phrase resistance to change can be somewhat misleading. People don’t resist change as much as they resist its implications—the ambiguity that results when the familiar ceases to be relevant.

In my next post, I will talk about ways we can help clients leverage resistance to their advantage by providing them with frameworks, so they can understand what’s in play when people oppose major change initiatives.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: April 17, 2012 03:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Resistance to Change

Categories: Resistance

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. —C. S. Lewis

Resistance—What a Pain! (Or is it?)

If there was ever an aspect to organizational change that permeates our profession, it’s the need to address resistance. Reluctance, concerns, struggle, and opposition are all natural and healthy parts of the human transformative process. As such, surfacing, exploring, and addressing the views that run contrary to intended outcomes is as important to our role as is promoting understanding, commitment, and alignment toward realization goals.

The focus of this blog is the facilitation of fundamental transformative change endeavors. Within this context, is resistance difficult to deal with? Without question. Is it possible to achieve ambitious, dramatic change agendas without it being a central part of the implementation landscape? Absolutely not. 

As critical as it is to our work, some practitioners take the position that resistance is an unnecessary outcome that results from poor implementation planning or execution. I hold the opposite view —I see it as an intrinsic component to reaching full realization. Differences of opinion about issues as fundamental as resistance are worthy of open dialogue within our practitioner community. We will become a stronger discipline by sharing views on important facets of our profession, particularly when they represent divergent opinions.

Therefore, in this series, I’ll contrast my understanding of why some change agents see resistance as avoidable with why I believe it is both inescapable and central to achieving what clients expect us to help them accomplish.

First, as best I can tell, there are three basic variations of the “resistance can and should be averted” contention:

  • There are those who believe all you have to do is listen to everyone’s concerns and empathize with their circumstances and they will cooperate.

While there is value in listening and being empathetic, in my experience, people are often offended by the notion that their apprehensions are seen as so inconsequential that a little “getting it off your chest” is all that’s needed.

  • Then there are those who believe venting isn’t enough, but that resistance can be dispelled by employing various “involvement” or “engagement” activities. The theory here is that the anxiety and discomfort people experience when their world is turned upside down will thin out, if not vanish, by asking them to participate in some way in the change process.

I’ve rarely seen this approach live up to its hype. In many instances, those asked to participate actually leave the process with less trust than when they entered because many of their questions are left unaddressed. Some even get the message that they “should” have been persuaded by leadership in the first place. When this happens, instead of showing sponsors how to surface and use resistance to their advantage, practitioners undermine them by leaving them thinking it is preventable; thus, they are ill-equipped to deal with it.

  • My personal favorite is when change agents proclaim that human resistance doesn’t actually exist. They take the position that people don’t resist change, only systems do.

This one is so counter to my experience that it is hard to fathom the logic. As I understand it, the view depends on an interesting balancing act between rejecting the existence of human resistance to change on one hand while at the same time recognizing its presence but blaming it on the organizational structures and processes within which people operate. It’s a bit convoluted to say the least.

I can’t claim to fully comprehend this thinking, but it seems to somehow play into victimizing targets of change…portraying them as helpless against the overpowering dynamics that surround them. To the contrary, I can’t buy into this characterization because I’ve seen too many empowered targets of change significantly impact sponsor decision making. When resistance is properly brought forward to sponsors who genuinely value the target’s perspectives, they are able to influence both the changes that are approved and how they are pursued.

I guess it’s obvious that I disagree with these views. In fact, my experience has led me to believe that unless people register some degree of reservation about impending change, meaningful resolve for an initiative’s success can’t be developed. Doubt is an essential element in the commitment-building process and resistance is nothing more than an overt or covert expression of that skepticism.

The only set of conditions I have seen where resistance doesn’t materialize is when modest, incremental, or inconsequential changes are being attempted. Significant disenchantment can be largely skirted in these situations, but not when dramatic, fundamental endeavors are being pursued. With major change, resistance, in some form and to some degree, is always in play.

Bear in mind that this blog is not intended for the full spectrum of professional change facilitators. I’m writing for seasoned practitioners who are involved in complex, transformative initiatives. Imperative, multi-faceted organizational change efforts may be perceived as a wonderful new future or a horrible turn of events with disastrous implications. It all depends on the constituency you talk to. Either way, it involves humans in transition, and one thing you can bank on is that people will squirm and strain if asked to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances when there is a lot at stake.

Practitioners who promote resistance as a negative liability that can and should be prevented (instead of an uncomfortable but positive asset to be leveraged) do their clients a considerable disservice:

  • At a minimum, they lessen their own contribution to client success.
  • They often compound what otherwise could have been resolvable problems.
  • They miss the chance to identify concerns from the target’s perspective that can be mitigated early.
  • They bypass the prospect of targets feeling that sponsors want to hear their opinions, value their views and are eager to address what issues they can.
  • They squander their opportunities to prepare people for the reality of change.
  • They fail to capitalize on the chance for sponsors and targets to build mutual respect and interdependencies.
  • They cater to an unrealistic notion that somehow disruptive change can be achieved in a contented, conflict-free environment.
  • They foster superficial imitations of commitment rather than deep resolve.
  • They create environments prone to installing rather than realizing outcomes.

Practitioners who operate on the basis that resistance to major change can be averted jeopardize the intended outcome of their assigned projects and erode their own credibility in the process. For example, executives facing sophisticated, enterprise-wide initiatives for the first time might be coaxed into buying the myth that people will willingly upend their world without feeling any fear or doubt. Battle-scarred leaders familiar with the harsh realities of critical transformations, however, know that resistance is always going to be their companion on the change journey…at some time and to some degree. They look for seasoned change professionals who know what to do about it, not naïve players who cling to idealist notions of significant change without struggle.

Decide Where You Stand on the Importance of Resistance

I’m glad to say that the majority of change practitioners I know have a healthy respect for resistance and see it as an advantage to the implementation process, not an annoyance to be deflected. The point of this post is to say that there are those with a different view. I encourage readers to give some thought to this issue, because we must each decide which perspective is right for us. As a profession, we can live with differences of convictions, but it is vital that each of us formulate our views on matters of such importance to our craft. 

I believe resistance is inevitable, important to manage carefully, and that we as practitioners have a responsibility to address it with skill and mindfulness. It’s with these biases that I offer the following blog entries:

  • In post 2, I’ll focus on the influence that predictability and control have in shaping resistance.
  • In posts 3, 4, and 5, I’ll review three models I use when assessing how resistance is impacting implementation as well as when I’m educating clients about its various manifestations.
  • Also in post 5, I’ll give you the link to a tool that fosters sponsor/target discussion about current resistance to a specific change.

I hope that, in response to these posts, you will consider sharing some of your perspectives on the topic. What have you learned about resistance that others could benefit from?

Posted on: April 10, 2012 05:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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