Resistance to change: A new view of an old problem
The Futurist
May/Jun 2001

Authors: Peter de Jager
Volume: 35
Issue: 3
Pagination: 24-27
ISSN: 00163317
Subject Terms: Management
Employee attitude
Strategic planning
Organizational behavior
Classification Codes: 2310:  Planning
2500:  Organizational behavior
9190:  United States
Geographic Names: United States


There is a shortsighted belief in some upper-management boardrooms that those who resist change are a problem. Employees should always go with the flow, get with the program, and never resist change. But acting on this common belief by either ignoring or firing the resisters can prove dangerous. Many corporate mergers fail because of cultural reasons rather than economic ones. The 2 corporate cultures resist merging into a single cohesive whole. Managers trying to improve processes in their organizations need to understand why people resist change: resistance is simply a very effective, very powerful, very useful survival mechanism. Instead of viewing resistance as an anchor tying their organization to the safety of a protected harbor, change-advocating managers should see it as a rudder steering the organization through the rising winds and tides of change.

Copyright World Future Society May/Jun 2001

Full Text:

Which is the bigger problem-change or resistance to change? organizations, but, managed wisely, change need not be frightening Both cause conflicts in or disruptive.

There's a shortsighted belief in some upper-management boardrooms that those who resist change are a problem. Employees should always go with the flow, get with the program, and never resist change.

But acting on this common belief by either ignoring or firing the resisters can prove dangerous. Consider: If you dislike snakes, you might decide the answer to your problem is to get rid of all the snakes. But after you've solved your snake problem, you come face to face with an even larger problem-a plague of rats. Then you begin to understand that snakes were the solution to a problem you didn't even know had been solved and that a certain number of snakes are necessary to manage the rat population.

Similarly, if we try to eradicate all resistance to change in an organization, we are ignoring the legitimate function of resistance: to avoid unnecessary change. Any manager who insists, "I don't care why they're resisting, I just want them to change," might as well start building rattraps.

Change is a simple process. At least, it's simple to describe. It occurs whenever we replace the old with the new. Change is about traveling from the old to the new, leaving yesterday behind in exchange for a new tomorrow.

But implementing change is incredibly difficult. Most people are reluctant to leave the familiar behind. We are all suspicious about the unfamiliar; we are naturally concerned about how we will get from the old to the new, especially if it involves learning something new and risking failure.

Resistance as A Survival Mechanism

The difficulty of change surrounds us. Many corporate mergers fail because of cultural reasons rather than economic ones: The two corporate cultures resist merging into a single cohesive whole. Some people would rather continue to struggle with old, outdated tools than adopt some new technology, even if they know it would make life easier.

Managers trying to improve processes in their organizations need to understand why people resist change: Resistance is simply a very effective, very powerful, very useful survival mechanism.

Imagine a hunter in the distant past who hunted saber-toothed tigers with a long, heavy, sharp spear. Now present this imaginary hunter with a bow and arrow. The hunter would be well advised to get some strong proof that this flimsy strip of wood, strung with a bit of twisted hair, and a tiny spear with feathers on the end are more effective than his large, heavy, sturdy, dangerous, and well-tested spear.


It does not matter that we, the change advocates, know the bow and arrow will work; the hunter must also know it. After all, it's his life on the line, not ours. The hunter must also endure the learning period necessary to become proficient with the bow. During this learning period, his ability to hunt will diminish and the threat to his life will increase.

This simple example is not very different from what managers are doing when they ask people to change the way they work. Imagine that for the past five years you've done business in a particular manner, made money, and grown globally, expanding into new markets. When someone suggests a new way of doing business, you are like our imaginary hunter in that you're being asked to stop doing something that worked well in the past. You're being offered a new, untested method of doing something you've never seen before. You have the right, even a responsibility to your management and to your stakeholders, to ask "Why?" Why should you stop doing something you've proven works and start doing something you've never done before?

Change resisters should go a bit further and demand that the person proposing the change prove that what he or she is proposing is best for the company. Not protecting past successes is irresponsible. Not protecting past investments is a symptom of someone who doesn't care about the future.

The biggest obstacle to change is past success. That's as it should be. Asking why changes should be made when things have gone so well is rational and reasonable. The idea that anyone who questions the need for change has an attitude problem is simply wrong, not only because it discounts past achievements, but also because it makes us vulnerable to indiscriminate and ill-advised change.

Selecting Changes

We all have to change, because the world around us is ever changing, altering the conditions of our existence. The problem today is not just that we have to change, but that there is so much change attempting to blow us in conflicting directions. Books and magazines devoted to management offer such a rich array of new ideas that you could, if you really believed in adopting all change without resistance, create enough change projects to last a decade. And when the next month's publishing cycle floods you with more ideas, you could add another decade's worth of changes to your workload.

Resistance to change-in the form of some people asking, "Why should we adopt this change?"-is the only hope you have to guide your organization through the onslaught of change. Instead of viewing resistance as an anchor tying their organization to the safety of a protected harbor, change-advocating managers should see it as a rudder steering us through the rising winds and tides of change. Another way of looking at resistance is as a gateway or filter. Resistance to change helps us select from all possible changes the one that is most appropriate to the current situation.

But we are left in a quandary: If we accept that some changes must be avoided, and that other changes must be accepted, then we need to devise a strategy to tell us which is which.

Our first impulse is to create a set of guidelines for choosing between two or more possible changes. We have lots of experience in this area. Proven techniques include costbenefit analysis, return-on-investment calculations, and risk analysis. We even have a well-established protocol for assigning different weights to different features and benefits, transforming all complex decisions into a two-dimensional comparison. There are so many decision-making tools available that managers may justifiably boast of having "scientific" methods.

This is all well and good, but this "scientific" strategy usually ignores our earlier definition of change: the act of replacing the old with the new. This means that any change-selection process must compare every possible option not only with all the alternatives but also with what it is replacing.

This consideration of what is being replaced brings at least four new questions to the table:


1. Why is the old status quo no longer sufficient? You need to know whether the change is intended to remedy a deficiency or to seize an opportunity. The answer will help determine how people will react to the change.

2. What will it cost to make the transition from the old way of doing things to the "new-fangled method"? Besides the cost of acquisition, we must consider the disruption cost, the cost of training, the cost of temporary low morale, the cost of new hires, the cost of people leaving, the emotional cost of destroying "what once was."

3. Is this "cost of transition" justified by the incremental benefits of what is being proposed?

4. Does the proposed change support and reinforce existing core values?

Change does not occur in a vacuum. It takes place within an already well-defined, established, protected, and even revered context.

When you go through this grueling process of selecting the next change to adopt, you have convinced yourself that, not only is this the correct change, but it is the only choice open to you. But if you haven't involved anyone else in the process, it's no wonder you meet resistance-and no wonder you're aggravated by that resistance. You become strongly motivated to continue with the change, even if it's only to protect the investment you made in the decision process, not to mention the need to protect your ego.

Imagine, for example, that you need to upgrade your company's accounting system. The accounting department has been using a manual system well enough for a number of years, but it's become increasingly obvious that it cannot handle the pace of your company's recent growth. When hints of impending change are whispered around the water cooler, a low rumble of resistance resonates back to the executive suite. The command from on high back to you-the manager/change agent-is, "Adapt or die." What do you do?

There are a few strategies that could make the change more acceptable. You could assign the computer department to investigate alternative options that the folks in accounting could choose from. You could include members of the accounting department in the exploration of the alternatives.

You could also turn the problem over to the accounting people themselves, allowing them to attend workshops or subscribe to magazines that review new accounting systems, or even hire new accountants already experienced in new systems. Then it would be up to the accounting department to propose their own change and even fight for the budget necessary to implement their vision.

The result is that the people affected by the change are committed to it. They implement the new system without that change being forced on them.

Rational vs. Irrational Resistance

Of course, we have so far only addressed rational resistance to change. The understanding is that rational resistance can be subdued with reasonable explanations for any proposed change. If the reasons to change are persuasive enough, then resisters will willingly adopt the change.

Rational resistance includes resisting because we feel uninvolved. We believe the change is being forced upon us if we've had no involvement with the process. It is amazing how deeply people can dig in their heels and refuse to budge when they decide they don't want to do something. It becomes nothing more than a contest of wills. It's also an example of what happens when one of the basic rules of change is ignored: You must involve people in the change.


Another rational reason people resist change is that they fear having to learn something new. It's not that they disagree with the benefits of some new process; rather, they simply fear the unknown future and doubt their ability to adapt to it.

There are ways to help such resisters overcome their fears. One way is to create an environment where learning is the norm, where the early failures of any learning endeavor are not frowned upon or punished, but are rewarded because failure is honored as evidence of effort.

If management really does want to implement change, they can create such a learning environment. It just takes commitment and leadership.

However, irrational resistance does exist. There are rare people for whom no amount of evidence, proof, demonstration, or persuasion will suffice to get them to willingly adopt the change. They simply don't want to change. How these folks are managed in an organization depends greatly upon the organizational culture.

Whatever else you do, fight for as long as possible the temptation to reject resistance. Resistance to change is normal and natural. It makes itself known mostly as a plea for a reason to change. If there's a reason for change, voice it. If there's no reason to change, avoid it. Instead of rejecting resistance, listen, learn, and lead. FEEDBACK: Send your comments about this article to


Slow Cities Resist Fast Change

A movement to slow down the pace of change has emerged that bears examination by pro-change advocates. The Slow City Movement is a conscious attempt by some 32 communities in Italy to adopt only those changes that contribute to the quality of life for citizens and reinforce local values and culture.

According to the Slow City Manifesto, the "new international 'Slow City' movement implements a program of civilized harmony and ac

tive peace founded on the serenity of everyday life to bring together towns and cities, large and small, which share common features and move in this direction."

The Slow Cities movement has emerged from the 1980s Slow Food movement, which represented a reaction to the fast-food restaurants invading Italian cities. The Slow Food movement advocates leisurely sit-down dinners with civilized conversation.

Slow Cities seek to create a fu

ture that savors life even in the face of rapid change: "The national and international association promoted by the municipal administrations that have joined the Slow Food movement will be a continuous workshop for what, hopefully, will become the neohumanism of the early third millennium," the manifesto concludes. For more information on Slow Cities,

visit slowcity.html.

About the Author

Peter de Jager is a keynote speaker and consultant specializing in the management of technological change. He was one of the first writers to bring the Y2K computer problem to popular attention.

His address is de Jager & Company Ltd., 22 Marchbank Crescent, Brampton, Ontario L6S 3B1, Canada. Telephone 1-905-792-- 8706; e-mail; Web site

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