Resistance to change

Dr Mike Clayton puts forward some new thinking on how L&D professionals can successfully respond to resistance.

Most define resistance, either explicitly or implicitly, as a natural reaction to change; mostly a reaction against change. Photo credit: Fotolia 
Have you ever heard yourself repeating some version of the cliché that change is the only thing that is stable in today’s world? For those of us involved in training and development, change is not just part of our role; change is fundamental to the questions we’re asked and the environment we create. 
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Every training, coaching and development practitioner needs to understand change, and to be able to help others understand it and cope better with it. Change is part of our landscape and one of the forces that shapes it daily.
A central aspect of dealing with change is how we respond to resistance. But this does not just apply to us; it is one of the commonest concerns I encounter in training, seminars and one-to-one sessions. Our clients need to understand resistance to change and the need to be able to handle it in a positive manner.
So how do you answer their questions? What advice do you give and what models do you share? Most practitioners present – and work from – long-established models of change, such as Kurt Lewin’s Freeze Phases, Scott and Jaffe’s Change Grid, William Bridges’ Transitions, or John Kotter’s Eight Steps of Leading Change.These are all excellent models that offer powerful insights which help us understand and deal with change. I don’t wish, by the way, to diminish others you may also use by limiting myself to a selective list.
But when was the last time you looked at newer research and ideas? The problem is simple: change management books don’t sell well – so said one of my publishers. While there are many on the market, Kotter does rather dominate. For 21st century thinking, we need to root around some of the more academic sources. There, we find much of interest that should stimulate new thinking.
What is resistance?
Inevitably, if you read a lot, and especially if you include some academic texts and research papers, you will find many definitions. Some authors don’t even bother to define it: it must be self-evident.
Most define resistance, either explicitly or implicitly, as a natural reaction to change; mostly a reaction against change. For most writers after Lewin it is a psychological response. Indeed, I can often be heard citing my first rule of change: resistance is inevitable.
We will see that this is disputed and therefore I am wondering if this rule is really solid. Lewin, by the way, saw resistance as a far more systemic phenomenon, in which psychology plays one part, and social, cognitive and physical forces also act to counter the forces for change. More recently, some researchers are reintroducing this perspective.
In this article, I want to survey four papers that have given me pause for thought in honing my understanding of resistance to change. I do this, not to represent, nor less to argue for, the ideas their authors put forward. I am merely offering my own understanding of those ideas in the hope that you may be motivated to investigate further and review your own understanding.
Resistance is not inevitable
Perhaps the simplest of the ideas I surveyed is put forward by Kilian M Bennebroek Gravenhorst. He finds that the majority of people he surveyed in six different large-scale organisational change programmes supported change, rather than resisted it.
He also found that people nearer the top of the organisation (the strategists) were most supportive. Implementers were marginally less so and recipients were least supportive, although still with positive support for change running at more than 50 per cent in all cases, and more than 70 per cent in five of them.
Bennebroek Gravenhorst’s argument can be summed up in one statement: resistance is mainly caused by a change approach that excludes relevant stakeholders from the change process.
I share this perception from my own experience. What it caused me to consider is whether my first rule of change, ‘resistance is inevitable’, is valid. My conclusion arose when I considered my understanding of Aikido, a martial art I practice at a low level. In Aikido, we try to avoid resistance by ‘agreeing’ with our partner (attacker). By blending with their attack, they are less aware of our defence and have nothing to resist. In a more nuanced version of my rule: resistance is inevitable, if you give people something to push back against.
Replace resistance with ambivalence
In her article for the Academy of Management Review,6 Sandy Piderit argues that negative responses to change can be motivated by positive intentions, and that what organisations need is ambivalence. This is not a ‘don’t care’ attitude, but a nuanced response that holds the pros and cons simultaneously. She cites numerous examples, building our responses to change from three dimensions: emotional, cognitive and intentional.
In a marvellous quote from the wonderful Mary Parker Follett, Piderit draws on the point that Bennebroek Gravenhorst makes, and I cannot resist re-quoting it:
“we shouldn’t put to… workers finished plans in order merely to get their consent… one of two things is likely to happen, both bad: either we shall get a rubber-stamped consent and thus lose what they might contribute to the problem in question, or else we shall find ourselves with a fight on our hands – an open fight or discontent seething underneath.”
Neither blind compliance nor needless strife are helpful. What we need is more subtlety. Or, to be more precise, people prefer simplicity on a psychological level and we call this congruence. But our organisations need us to respond with more subtlety.
Her first example is a familiar one to anyone who knows Scott and Jaffe’s work or the many variants of it. In the transition from exploring to committing, we can support a change cognitively, while rejecting it emotionally. But Piderit shows how our ambivalence can sit between any of the three dimensions, and even within one dimension. Intentional ambivalence may play out in opposing change we fear or are critical of through ‘secret’ means such as suggestion boxes, while supporting it openly to avoid appearing publicly as a trouble-maker.
Piderit’s paper is a rich combination of a survey of research and reasoned polemic. It has caused me to deepen my understanding of responses to change and modify my approach to harnessing resistance.
The role of change agents
Also appearing in the Academy of Management Review is an intriguingly titled paper by Jeffrey Ford, Laurie Ford and Angelo d’Amelio.
They make three valuable suggestions, culminating in the suggestion that resistance can be a good thing. First, they suggest that a lot of what we describe as resistance is merely an interpretation that change-makers place on responses that have their own motivations, but may not be motivated by opposition. They call this sense-making and attribute it in part to the phenomenon of getting what we look for.
We expect resistance (because we think it is inevitable) and so interpret what we get as resistance. Indeed, they go on to suggest that framing behaviours as resistance is self-serving in that it ‘excuses’ defensive responses by the change agents, and can also set up an excuse for problems and setbacks in the change process.
Their second suggestion takes this further, in suggesting that change agents themselves contribute to resistance by damaging trust and not encouraging the best possible communication. Hence my golden rule for handling resistance: I will always respect my resisters.
Indeed, Ford, Ford and d’Amelio go further and argue that change agents often amplify resistance by resisting it themselves. This is how conflict can arise, whether by active, combative resistance to the resistance, or by avoidance and disengagement.
Their third suggestion turns the tables and argues, as I do, that resistance is a resource. Handled well, the conversations it creates can boost engagement and contribute to better solutions. Not only that, but conflict, when managed well, can improve decision-making, which is a point that echoes Piderit’s arguments.
In a particularly thought-provoking paper, I was most taken by their observation that much of the teaching and learning about how to create organisational change has been pared down to how to put stakeholders right when they oppose our initiatives. They collate a list of additional toolkits we need to build up, which is something I have been trying to do for ten years.
Predisposition to resist
Although not the most recent paper, the one that is newest to me is Shaul Oreg’s 2003 research study on why some people are more inclined to resist than others. Oreg finds, through a series of studies, that four factors account best for differences in our predisposition to resist change:
  • Routine seeking – a preference for stability over novelty.
  • Emotional reaction – a tendency to react emotionally to imposed change.
  • Short-term focus – the desire to stick to plans already made, rather than seizing opportunities.
  • Cognitive rigidity – a tendency to hold consistent views over time and not change your mind easily.
Whist Oreg’s paper is quite technical, and filled with tables of correlations, his conclusions are simple. Across a range of changes, some people are more likely to be resistant, and we can identify them from four primary traits. Other traits have less predictive power. 
This work has successfully synthesised many earlier studies that Oreg references. These each focused on specific traits and gave him a starting pool of six sources of resistance.
So Oreg is drawing our attention to the role of individual personalities in our understanding of resistance.
But he is not yet offering us a useful toolkit. Indeed, he suggests three primary uses for his work, one of which may not be ethical nor, in some jurisdictions, legal. That one is in personnel selection. The others are in training and in managing consumer behaviour. Unfortunately, I am not aware of follow-up research into how to tailor interventions to deal with these four tendencies explicitly.
What he does seem to be telling us is that people are different and that some are more likely to resist. And therefore, Oreg seems to endorse the rule that, to some extent, resistance is inevitable.
The Onion Model
All of this, and more, has fed into my thinking about resistance to change.
The Onion Model sets out a series of layers of resistance, each one deeper and more challenging to handle than the last. When we understand how to diagnose the resistance we find, then we can adapt our response to be as respectful and effective as possible. We can learn from our resisters and help them; rather than defaulting to combating them.
But my point is not that any one model can displace its predecessors but rather that no one model can ever hope to be comprehensive. We tend to find models, tools and explanations that we like. We find they fit with our worldview and we start to feel comfortable with them. So as trainers, we incorporate them into our toolkits and get them out whenever we need them.
That is part of our talent. But we must never allow ourselves to become complacent about the tools we use. We must constantly return to sources and re-sharpen our saw. No model is complete. I know you are busy, and so am I, but if your job is to train, teach, coach or develop, then your first responsibility is to train, teach, coach and develop yourself. 
About the author 
Dr Mike Clayton is a trainer, speaker, author and trusted adviser. He has written 13 books, including the Handling Resistance Pocketbook and The Influence Agenda: A Systematic Approach to Aligning Stakeholders in Times of Change. You can contact him through his website.


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