5 forms of change resistance

When I was eleven years old and in my last year of primary school, my parents told me I would be going to a high school a few suburbs away. I was not happy because all the kids in my class were going to the local high school. As far as I could tell, this was what the kids had always done when they left my primary school. "I want to go where the others are going!" I moaned and whinged for many months. They tried to explain why the other school would be so much better for me in the long run, but I didn't hear the logic. I'm sure I stamped my feet and threatened anarchy, hoping to convince them they were being unreasonable, unfair, and, frankly, mean!

Unfortunately adults can be just as petty in their response to change, even when it is designed to help them. A new system that will improve the work flow can be seen as an unnecessary disruption in a busy environment. A new structure designed to enhance the synchronies between areas can be seen as a challenge to status and job security. Even just a change by a leader to a document you have spent months drafting can be seen as a slight on your expertise.

Organisations are constantly battling "change resistance" and there is no doubt that much time, money and energy can be wasted trying to introduce new programs & processes, and changes to existing ones. You will have seen situations where people seem to ignore a proposed change, avoid it, criticise it, or actively attack it. It can often be frustrating, because the proposed change may be quite logical, fairly simple, or even in their best interests, but still there are some who seem to resist, just as I did when my parents wisely sent me to a school that was an order of magnitude better than the local school. But like all things, if you can diagnose the cause of the behaviour, you are better equipped to deal with it. 

Personally I think that "resistance" is not the most accurate term for this phenomenon. I don't think the majority of people are intentionally resisting the change, but we are all hard-wired to stick with current habits, stay in routine, and repeat existing practices as a matter of priority. "Resistance to change" is the behaviour you see, but it might be more accurate to call it "preference for stability". Our brains work most easily in situations that take the least energy, and in nearly all cases, this is the known pattern and habit. When you press for change, you are asking someone to leave their comfort zone, enter the unknown, and expend their precious energy on something new. Unless it is something they strongly believe in already, this can be a big ask!

When you strike resistance, the first step is to uncover what barrier is stopping a person stepping forward with you. Understanding the barrier (eg. a perceived threat, a conflict in priorities, work overload, or strong biases for the past) offers you the opportunity to tailor your approach to best help them step past this barrier. In the 5 different forms of change resistance outlined below, we'll look at what triggers the resistance, and what can help you to guide them past it.

Note: in a relatively short article like this, some of the complexities and nuances of your individual situation may not be reflected, so take this information as an initial guide to help diagnose the situation, but then explore your thoughts and ideas with someone you trust. Colleagues who know the people who are displaying resistance can sometimes offer deeper insights into the triggers for the behaviour, which can often be for reasons unrelated to your proposed change.

1. Passive change resistance

The behaviour: individuals remain silent about their views or appear to agree to changes, but then do not act on them. 

The cause: it's a threat response, and threat activates fear in the brain. You'll see fear manifest itself in 4 different behaviours: fight, flight, freeze, or freak-out. When someone displays passive resistance, you are seeing a 'flight' or 'freeze' response. It means the threat that this change presents is something they want to move away from, or hide from in the hope that it passes by without affecting them. In some cases it may incorporate aspects of Overload Change Resistance seen below, but often it is more than that. Something about the proposed change may make them feel uncomfortable. It may be a threat to their sense of competence or confidence, or possibly they have imagined the future situation in a way that does not turn out well for them.

The tools for change: don't assume silence implies acceptance. In fact those who say the least may be those struggling the most internally. Fear does not just arise in the face of a real threat, it also arises in the face of imagined threats. So your goal with these people is to make sure they do not create their own fears by imagining negative impacts from the change. With all threat responses, whether passive or active, it is the most negative consequences that are imagined first and most strongly. Your first task is to encourage people to externalise their thoughts, because it is not until the scenarios that they hold in their head are stated clearly that they can begin to find a more realistic and balanced perspective. For some people this requires a one-on-one conversation, and for others it can be achieved in a group environment. But most importantly ensure you get them externalising their thoughts, don't do it all for them. Even if you state what you can see may be their fear and they agree, until THEY explore it more objectively it will not change.

2. Active change resistance

The behaviour: individuals speak and act against the change either overtly or covertly, with a particular focus on negatively influencing others to also resist, or finding a way to have the change overturned. They may undermine change efforts in subtle ways, or challenge them directly, depending on their personality, role and confidence.

The cause: as with passive resistance, this is usually triggered by a threat response, but when someone displays active resistance, they are modelling 'fight'. It means this change has triggered a very specific threat that they want to eradicate. It may make them feel out of control or unfairly treated, and their active resistance is an attempt to reassert some lost autonomy. It may pose a risk to something they hold dear (e.g. a threat to status, job, intellect) and they are attempting to avoid this materialising. It may be in conflict with something else that has a dominant hold over their beliefs or priorities (eg. you are trying to change something they think their boss is against). Generally you will see the obvious active change resistant behaviours at key points in a change process, when the impact of the change is imminent, e.g. when you are trying to force a commitment from them, when you are pushing things up the line into the view of their superiors, or when an ally starts an attack and they can see an opportunity for success from their efforts.

The tools for change: it is important to understand what potential threat your proposed change may present for people. It may vary from person to person, so reflect on this question early in your planning. The threat may be real, in which case the best approach is to surface it with them and explore together how this can be addressed. But in some cases the threat is imagined, and again, getting close to active change resistors early in the process enables you to better understand their perceived concern and air it so it can be explored. Generally, when someone can externalise their thoughts, they will reflect on them with greater clarity and realise a more balanced perspective. Then it is possible to find a way to manage their potentially conflicting pressures or concerns more maturely. Fight responses lose most of their aggression when addressed early, frankly and directly. While it can feel like a direct attack on you, remember the response is about something conflicting strongly in their worldview, so resist the urge to heighten the tension by 'fighting' back. 

3. Attachment change resistance

The behaviour: individuals present strong arguments against the need for change, or in support of the existing process, in an attempt to convince others not to make radical changes. They may try to minimise the problem in an attempt to maintain the status quo. If they see that change is inevitable, they may propose slight adjustments in the hope of achieving a compromise that allows them to still maintain the core of the current process and eliminate major changes.

The cause: they have a strong sense of ownership for existing practices/processes and may have strong emotional ties to it. They may have been the original architect of it, have strong links to the "values" embedded in it, or have used it with success and believe it makes their life easier. When someone is heavily invested in an existing process, they are in the grip of the 'anchoring bias' and the ‘confirmation bias’, which lock their thinking into positive circles around the known process. Because the brain cannot hold 2 conflicting views at the same time, this makes it very difficult for them to see the need for change, or to have a positive response to a replacement process.

The tools for change: often these people are not your usual change resistors and they may not wish to be difficult. But their wiring in support of the status quo means they genuinely believe in the current process, and it can make them unconsciously "blind" to what others may see as the drivers for change. No amount of argument about the process (either against the old or for the new) will convince them, and your best approach is to ignite a fresh reflection on the root problem that you are trying to address. You want to build from first principles, looking at it all 'as if for the first time'. You can only loosen the grip of the 'anchoring bias' and the 'confirmation bias' by not triggering them in the first place. Return the focus to purpose, define the current need, reflect on current real data that is different to the past, and from here you have the basis to form a new picture. While their attachments will re-emerge throughout this journey, your goal is to create a whole new neural network around the new solution. Beware the trap of being drawn back into arguments about the old process. Just keep your focus on the new picture and help them reinforce the new wiring and swap their allegiance over.

Note: some people can experience a 'grief' response when change replaces something in which they have been strongly invested. Strong emotional reactions might be an indicator of this response. So before you bite back or complain about someone's behaviour, consider the history and this person's role and experience with the old process. If there are reasons that might make them strongly attached, be conscious of this and affirm their experience by acknowledging the positives from the past. The suffering that someone experiencing loss is going through is only compounded when it is ignored by others. Here's a simple overview of how the stages of grief  might apply to an organisational change situation and behaviour that tells you what's going on. 

4. Uncertainty change resistance

The behaviour: people spend a lot of time wondering, worrying, talking and hypothesising about the change and its possible impacts. Rumours start to circulate and often they are based on unfounded assumptions, grasped at in the absence of known facts. Productivity levels may start to decline, general negativity may rise, and it can be difficult to get people focused on business-as-usual. 

The cause: in the face of uncertainty, brain activity is heightened. The brain is constantly working to make sense of situations, and will tend towards known patterns first. In most change situations, there are many gaps where there are no definite facts to fill the void, and this leads to much circular rumination, fabrication of possible futures, and wasted effort on things that may never happen. Added to this dilemma is that the brain naturally fills voids by conjuring the worst scenarios, which will then drive resistance to the change. 

The tools for change: don't promote uncertainty! This is probably one of the most common pieces of advice when it comes to change, because no matter how well-intentioned a follower is, once uncertainty grips them, it can be impossible to stop the rumination of mind. This rumination knows no work hour boundaries, and it can keep people up at night and flow over into times they should be focused on something else (hence the impact on productivity and happiness). By recognising where the certainty gaps are yourself, you can influence the assumptions people make to fill those gaps by guiding the conversation about possible futures.  But most importantly, keep people's attention on what is known, even if it's simply the specifics of the day-to-day work and deliverables.

5. Overload change resistance

The behaviour: stress responses such as 'moaning' or cynicism about the change, or unexpected emotional reactions or unexplained active resistance to what should be a fairly simple change. In summary, it looks like "pushing back" but without any particular argument relating to the specific change itself.

The cause: it's a common affliction in most workplaces now, where change has continued for many years in one form or another. While change is 'normal', the amount of change that happens in general life is not often as constant as that experienced in (particularly large) organisations. Sometimes the pace is high, there are a series of changes layering on top of each other (often driven by different parts of the organisation), and many are instigated without any influence from those most affected. Add to this an already busy schedule of existing work that takes up much of any person's mental resources, and 'one more minor change' is like that last grain of sand that topples the dune.

The tools for change: in many cases you are trying to introduce your specific change with no influence over the other changes that are contributing to the stress. The real cause of resistance to your particular change proposition is that people have reached the limit of their attention resources and have nothing to give. Pushing back is a natural reaction, in an attempt to stop the flow of information or expectation that is fighting for attention. Be conscious of the conflicts at play by recognising what is on their plate, and consider how your message might fit best in the flow of information fighting for their attention. Often you have no way of becoming "priority one" because they have other dominating forces (e.g, their own boss), so you have to really "get in flow" with them. Preferably work with positive attention grabbers: appealing to a deeper purpose in which they also believe, building a personal connection so they want to work with you, and focusing on positive outcomes that genuinely help them. Most importantly, be very present with them and what is going on in their world, so you can see your window of opportunity and get your timing right for pushing your change forward.

Note that negative attention grabbers (threat, risk, danger, urgency) will work, but only for a short and immediate need. If used when the driver is not truly critical, or used for too long, you will only exacerbate the stress and lose the confidence of people.

Don't forget that one of your most powerful tools in instigating change is to take people on the journey of recognising the need in the context of purpose. "Why are we here?" and "What is the real need?" should always precede decisions to do something new or different. When this realisation of the need is shared, people come to believe in the change for their own reasons, and you can come back to this point whenever you need to realign people. While this step is often done at the beginning, it is sometimes forgotten later in the process when new people come on board or are expected to join into the change activities, so return often to re-engage people with these essential anchors. 

Contact us for advice and assistance on navigating through change in your organisation.