In the last post on change readiness (Ready or Not), I flagged that I don’t tend to put much stock in focussing on change resistance. This post, I’ll tell you why.

Historically (and frustratingly a lot of the time today), change resistance was / is seen as this immovable force needing to be overcome in order to achieve change success.

In 1979, Kotter and Schlesinger published “Choosing Strategies for Change” in the Harvard Business Review. In it they proposed six strategies to manage resistance in order of difficulty.


1)   Education and Communication

2)   Participation and Involvement

3)   Facilitation and Support

4)   Negotiation and Agreement

5)   Manipulation and Co-option

6)   Implicit and Explicit coercion.


As the change resistance force grows, you move down the list. In the article, they list the pros and cons of each approach and when it is best to use them. It’s all pretty sensible stuff, but once the topic moves out of the text it all gets a little simplistic.

The minute managers hear objections to the change they want to implement there is much hand-wringing about employees who are resistant to change. The call goes out to consultants who can assist with reducing or overcoming resistance to change.

And I really, really think this is a very short-sighted view. More recently, change researchers (Piderit, 2000, Waddell and Sohal, 1998, Bovey and Hede, 2001)  have recognised that change resistance is actually a far more nuanced and dynamic personal experience of change. What is seen as “resistance” is multi-dimensional and often as not a positive and constructive aspect of the change process. I’m with them.

Here’s why I get frustrated with a focus on change resistance as a negative thing and something to be “overcome”

1)   Change resistance is multidimensional and there are so many emotions associated with a “resistant view” it would take a team of organisational psychologists working full time to assist in working through it. I don’t know about you, but I have rarely seen that resourcing

2)   The reactions associated with change resistance change from day-to-day and hour-to-hour. It is too dynamic to “overcome”.

3)   When people express resistance to change they are actually engaging in the change. They are invested enough to consider it and respond. This is a good thing.

4)   Resistance to me is feedback – as change agents you get the opportunity to respond to that feedback

5)   Often resistance is used as an excuse for poorly communicated or designed change.  It is easier to blame the employees than reflect on design of the change process.

6)   Sometimes change resistance is an indicator of change fatigue. To “overcome” change resistance in an environment of continuous change is fraught with danger. Consider those resistant the canaries in the mineshaft.


There’s also some interesting neuroscience behind not focusing on change resistance. One of the core aspects of motivation and goal achievement  and brain function involves the “Reticular Activating System” or RAS. The RAS is responsible for sifting through the millions of messages you get each day and making sense of them all. It’s very efficient. Crudely put, when you focus on change resistance, your RAS seeks out examples of resistance and ignores the rest. That’s just a little bit too risky for me.

For me, “change resistance” is really normal – we coach our managers to understand that it is normal to experience a performance dip after implementation of the change, it is also normal to hear expressions of resistance.

Often, what we are hearing is:

  • I don’t know I have the skills for this
  • I don’t think you have explained why very clearly
  • I really want this to happen but I don’t want it to stuff up
  • Show me proof this is going to work
  • Have you considered how we have failed at this before?


So in the last post, I talked of the value in considering change readiness. For me this represents a more valuable aspect of change management. I recognise expressions of resistance as engaged stakeholders and work with them accordingly, and I accept that will be a continuous part of how employees make sense of change. But I put my focus on change readiness. This gives much more targeted activity to do to move the business forward in their change goals. I tell my RAS to focus on change readiness and this draws out much more information and evidence that can be worked on in a positive and productive sense.


What do you think? How have you dealt with change resistance in your efforts? Would love to hear…

PS Just after hitting publish I find this gem of a post on the topic from Bill Braun (Hearing Doubt Rather Than Seeing Resistance). Bill is far more eloquent than me, but basically…”what he said”!


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