Change is not the problem – resistance to change is the problem

Change is not the problem – resistance to change is the problem

Change is not the problem - resistance to change is the problem

Change is not the problem – resistance to change is the problem

Leaders can’t control much of the world changing around them, but they can control how they respond to how employees feel about a change.

Understanding the most common reasons people object to change gives you the opportunity to plan your change strategy to address these factors.

Resistance to change in organisations - Change is not the problem - resistance to change is the problem

Resistance to change in organizations – Change is not the problem – resistance to change is the problem

The eight most common beliefs and reasons that people resist change

  1. There isn’t any real need for the change
  2. The change is going to make it harder for them to meet their needs
  3. The risks seem to outweigh the benefits
  4. They don’t think they have the ability to make the change
  5. They believe the change will fail
  6. Change process is being handled improperly by management
  7. The change is inconsistent with their values
  8. They believe those responsible for the change can’t be trusted

Culture of trust

In an organization that has a culture of trust, transparent communication, involved, engaged employees and positive interpersonal relationships, resistance to change is easy to see – and also much less likely to occur. Employees feel free to tell their boss what they think and to have open exchanges with managers.

When a change is introduced in this environment, with a lot of discussion and employee involvement, resistance to change is minimized. Resistance is also minimized if there is a wide-spread belief that a change is needed.

Organizational change management pitfalls

Avoid these common change management pitfalls

Being prepared for the resistance and making sure your solutions fit the existing culture are the keys to making change work.

It’s important that the new way makes sense at all levels. A solution is not viewed as valuable if it just compensates for a flaw in the system.

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About The Author

Torben Rick

Experienced senior executive, both at a strategic and operational level, with strong track record in developing, driving and managing business improvement, development and change management. International experience from management positions in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and United Kingdom

Blog Comments

Well Done! Helpful! Especially like the connection with resistance and the organizational culture. The embedded PPT provides helpful reminders about what to avoid.

Appreciate you sharing. Thanks.

There are also some strong arguments against this view of planning for resistance to change. Firstly, the use of change resistance model that is based on how individuals cope with bereavement and that has not been tested for use in organisational change. Furthermore, it is a model of personal emotions and does not take into account managing large-scale change with groups of people. It also projects a sense of victimisation of staff that have change done to them and there is nothing they can do about it. Organisational change and the loss of a loved one are not the same.

Secondly, by assuming resistance to change in advance there is also the issue of creating the situation it predicts which further reinforces the need to address resistance to change. The issue is the confusion of cause and effect – resistance is not the cause of failure, it is the outcome of failure.

Having worked in countless organisations I have not yet come across one where change was not desired. In some they spoke about change fatigue and what a hard job it would be to get them to change. It turned out to be the complete opposite – they were tired of all the initiatives that did not change anything.

Great article Torben,

However I fear that it is trending to consider resistance as a unilateral holistic thing when it is actually comprised of resistance to smaller things that the general change might be representing.

Change Management theories are more and more trying to emulate science when the truth is that it is not. There is no formula and there is no ‘standard resistance’, the resistance you meet will be different depending on the change initiatives, the organization and you as a leader. Let’s practice our responsiveness instead of our library of standard methodologies.

Thanks for a great blog!


An interesting and stimulating article Torben
I agree with Milad’s point that there is a risk of being too formulaic and we have to react to (and anticipate) the actuality in the change that we face. In that context this and other such publications provide useful learning and start points to our planning of change.

Having been team member and later leader of some very big organisation and system changes in a multisite international organisation I do feel that Torben misses/underemphasises one major source of resistance:
Political resistance.

Torben’s model appears to assume an underlying alignment of personal objectives with the “best” outcome for the organisation.

In my experience this is rarely the case. Change will frequently impact on the personal aspirations of people with power and influence at some level. Only a part of this will be visible at the outset and the change leader must be vigilant to detect the direct and indirect signs as the change project proceeds. In a multi-site situation the leader needs not only a high level “change champion” at sites but also one or more trusted change agents who can “smell the coffee”
Best regards

How many organisations deal with the issue that stops 95% of change efforts – the blockers! As Kotter says – “get rid of the no-no,s – really!”

Good point David. I try and think of it as “who benefits from the current system?” It is very helpful to have a good understanding of this well in advance. This does not necessarily mean they will resist change. All the best. Stefan

I enjoyed the article and the conversation that it has started. I agree that change needs to have a clearly communicated value statement and the endurance to see the training through. I have experienced massive organizational changes that were communicated well, money was spent to provide good training up front, and the employees felt like there was money being spent to train them. Then after the roll out, there was continual support and if need be, a person that has mastered the new process was flown to the site struggling for a week long of side-by-side mentoring. I have also experienced the massive change that has a lot of fan fare. A lot of up front training. Then the new system was unreliable and employees had to do a hybrid of old system and new system just to get through, which is not as efficient as doing either one. Also, the system was designed to identify if a service failure had occurred, but the procedures were never rewritten to account for this new data. This leaves the employees disillusioned about the information that can be provided by the change in systems. When an employee can adapt to the change in systems and see the information of how it is not a service failure, but still has to act like it is a service failure, it is very frustrating and leaves them asking what is the point of the change if the company will not let them use the information.

The subject is indeed key to successful change in any organization.
People are not against change but against being changed.
Force it upon them, and they all will find reasons not to collaborate.
Change requires people to step out of their comfort zone; This induces fear.
Discomfort and even more so, fear for the outcome, is the utmost important reason for resistance to change.
It is about people and not machines. People think, feel and have emotions. All personnel involved always and immediately know it is not only just about adapting to market changes, but it’s also always about cost, competitiveness and headcount (in due time).
The objective of all change: do more with same or same with less. The last one will certainly increase internal competition, immediately jeopardizing personal safety. These and other personal interests and internal networks need to be understood, made visible and consequences in actions from the management need to be clear, integer and decisive. The inevitable questions need to be defined and answered upfront. Prepare them, CORRECTLY.
Only then you can take the right decisions and implement the correct measures to reduce R2C.
People need to feel comfortable, every step of the change and you must obtain their buy-in (check, check and check again). This is your responsibility, not your employee’s. Trustworthiness only comes with clearness about the objectives and integer and consistent leadership.
It will reduce the depth and length of the unavoidable depression in the resistance curve.

Yes resistance to change is a problem and your opening sentence is a clue “Change is not the problem – resistance to change is the problem.” You stated some issues why do we people resist to change but those are just “consequences” not the “cause”. Which is a symptom of our western culture.

What I see is that we resist changing because we perceive stability as a security. And if in change management you can assure “security” then changing can be accepted. And yes the start should be “culture of trust” followed by “the new way should makes sense at all levels”.

Jaro Berce

thank you for this excellent summary about change. Having 20 years experience in consulting I can add only one more aspect. If leaders manage their associate properly during a change process people will develop. Self esteem improves and experience about successfully surviving change sticks into the mind. So next time the leader will find a more ready to change team. This gives hope…..

This post seems to suppose that employees are passive. The “stages of grief” model is only relevant when change is imposed upon somebody (for example when you lose your partner).
March and Simon (Organizations) have called this model of change the “machine model of organization”. It equates an organization with a machine – not a group of human beings. This is why there is resistance to change. And change fails.
In fact resistance to change shows what matters for an organization. If you can understand it, you can use it for change. Then your organization will “lead” change. (cf. The Arab spring.)
There’s a lot of literature about “stretch goals” that just do that.

An important discussion to which I’d like to add a different perspective. Thinking in terms of ‘resistance to change’ can create a predetermined mindset that hinders the needed open-minded investigation why people behave in certain ways. It also implies a push of change onto people instead of creating and directing change with people.

My hypothesis: thinking in terms of resistance to change is a symptom of a change strategy that creates the problem. The root cause of resistance to change is thus not to be found with the people that are seen to resist, but with the people who decide the change strategy.

Totally agree that change shouldn’t be so hard, but really the following is what is going on in corporations…

“People Don’t Hate Change, They Hate How You’re Trying to Change Them!”

As a Black Belt I faced this in my work. Lets say that “Old Donkey cannot have New walking mode”, and especially if these donkeys are the Top Management (Roof of the Pyramid) This is the most difficult situation. Middle Management is more flexible
for change. The bottom is open to change because the Management said so. The key is the commitment of the Top Management. Fish stinks from the head. Remember the Fishbone Analysis (Ishikawa Diagram)?

Totally agree unless the barriers to change are removed any initiative undertaken will fail. Its about changing behaviours and attitudes along with processes and systems. GREAT POST

If you overlay a standard performance bell curve of low, average and high performers over the process graphic you presented, it captures the process for each group very well. Eg. low performers often don’t get out of anger and denial, high performers are often impatient for the change to occur, so welcome it, and the average group goes through most of the process depicted.

BTW, Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolution” and his observation that “paradigm shift… only occur when the old one is shown to be inadequate” has direct impact on the graphic on the list of reasons “why”. Proving what’s current is inadequate can be unpleasant work, and easy to treat to lightly and then sets up that that graphic to be a very long process… e.g. extends to the right over time.

Thanks for writing.

Whenever human beings are exposed to change at work (or at home, at play or in relationship), resistance is a natural and common phenomenon. Even if change is the “solution” one needs to plan for resistance.

Leaders, managers, supervisors – all of us who are tasked with the role of implementing change efforts, need to ask this important question is: “Can you risk not dealing openly, honestly and directly with resistance?” The challenge with change is how one adapts to and how one makes change, sustainable; the flip side of which is: what gets in the way of adapting, and sustainability?

Stretching and tension

Stretch a rubber band between the thumb and forefinger of each hand; you experience tension. The right-hand represents a “healthy” tension, the positive energy that moves you forward. The left hand represents an “unhealthy” tension, pulling you in the opposite direction, into old habits, patterns, programming and “stories.” What’s happening on the left side is known as resistance.

Your programming around change

If you were to step back 25 miles outside of the universe and look down upon yourself as a witness, watcher or observer and reflect on your relationship with change over the past week, day, month, year or years, what do you see about yourself? Are you generally open, positive, curious about and accepting of change, or are you more negative, and resistant|?

Strategies and tactics related to resistance.

Generally speaking, there are three strategies folks use to deal with resistance to change. The first is, the “Nike” way – just do it. A second strategy is the “go along to get along” strategy. And the third strategy is to create change yourself with the notion that if I create it, I won’t resist it. I’ll return strategies in a moment.

Some common tactics folks use when dealing with resistance to change include conversations, confrontations, assessments, 360 feedback, anger management classes, criticism and “guilting,” bribery, threats, training, EAP programs, coddling, title/position changes and the like.

The downside of such strategies and tactics is, as often as not, they result in compliance – going along to get along, not true and real commitment, buy-in and sincere engagement. The difficulty with compliance is, it’s often passive-aggressive and results in unhealthy and deceptive behaviors. The resistance is not reduced or lessened and, before long, resistance will rear its ugly head again.

Such strategies and tactics deal more with the symptoms of resistance than the resistance itself. And the only open, honest and direct way to deal with resistance is to deal with the root cause of resistance, which is fear


People’s three greatest needs are: control, recognition and security. When these needs are threatened, people resist. Generally speaking, primary reasons people resist change are the fear of:

• how they will be affected
• something unfamiliar
• the unknown
• giving up control
• the “new me”
• giving up the “old me” – my identity

The real or perceived loss of control, recognition or security (mentally, emotionally, physically and/or psychologically) is what’s underneath resistance, notwithstanding the fact that people will go to any length to create rationalizations, justifications, excuses, and “stories,” to support their resistance – looking to and pointing to something or someone outside themselves as the “reason” for the resistance. It may be a symptom triggering resistance but the real cause is always “inside.”

What causes the fear?

The cause of the fear is perception. Perception is how we orient to our world based on
our experience, our memory and our history. If we would bring everyone who is reading this article into a theater and proceeded to show a movie, in real-time, it’s quite likely each individual in this room would have a different “interpretation” of what is happening based on their individual experience, history and memory.

So, when we experience change, the way we interpret it results in whether we engage in an action or reaction, a positive move forward vis-à-vis the change or a knee-jerk type of resistance.

Each of us secretly believes that our perception of reality is the “accurate perception.” And if I believe my perception of reality is the “accurate” perception, then what does that say about your perception? This causes conflict and resistance.

Each of our perceptions determines what we experience and how we interpret what we experience. So, when one is resisting change, it’s most often because the change one is experiencing runs “counter” to how we believe the world should be.

The antidote

The antidote to dealing with resistance to change is not to deal with the surface behaviors, but to deal with the root cause – fear.

This is often where many “change management” folks stop dead in their tracks. They say it’s messy, uncomfortable, “new-agey,” touchy-feely, “fluff.” . In essence, these are the defensive stances one takes because dealing with emotions is uncomfortable. My take in my experience is that until or unless a business legitimizes dealing with emotions and feelings, the negative emotional undercurrent that prevents any organization, from becoming a healthy organization will continue to affect morale, performance, production, success and profits.

Dear Torben, Dear readers.

Thank you for this article, thank you all for your thoughts and time taken to put it all down on (digital) paper.
So, what does it really take to manage the change? One thing is setting the direction and plotting the route in on our GPS. Another thing is actually getting to your destination. I believe, and I hope you all agree, that all comments and statements are correct from a certain point of reference and as no change is the same, no problem is the same, so how we get to the destination is never the same. We refer to “the people” as the problem but we are also the solution, so I like to refer to it not as a problem but as a challenge. A personal challenge that is and a personal challenge for each and every individual.

As S. Kierkegaard once said “To dare is to loose one’s footing, not to dare is to loose oneself”.

My belief (and I have practiced it. It works!) is that through dialogue you can go a long way. Dialogue with each and everyone to adress the concerns as described by Merkenhof and Peter. Fears, insecurity and lack of recognition are deep personal needs which many people are not even able to discus with their friends and family. We are not only talking about what they experience during their stay at the office but also what is going on at home, with their husband/wife, kids, friends, parents etc. It takes more than just our busness concept of “change management” to actually manage change succesfully. We need to be wanting to make the step eventhough it makes us insecure for a while. We cannot get to our planned destination without taking one step at a time.

Good article. Human beings are creatures of habit. If you have any doubt of this, examine the rituals you go through when you go to sleep at night or wake up in the morning. So any change in habit is greeted with some resistance. Frankly, for most organizations, that is good. Change that can’t be justified should not be pursued.
That said, I believe the points in your article are sound and consistent with what I have seen in my coaching work. They boil down to making a compelling case for change. Those companies that apply open book principles are at an advantage, as the merits of change are visible to the entire organization.

Well…. Reading this has been more than I expected…all good except for the overwhelm. I feel like I want to respond not only about the article, but also to the several informed and insightful comments. They point to how central, vibrant, and complex this issue is. As with most things, achieving (or approaching) mastery goes through several levels progressing through b oth understanding and skill. Ultimately, effectiveness (I think) is linked to how well one has learning and internalized some of the learnings and behavior so that the latter are almost habits and the former are blended, utilized, called upon in their complexity but conveyed in simple terms or actions to others (i.e. a single action or approach may be based on volumes of knowledge, but all that appears are those things address the moment or current circumstance effectively). (btw, I think that Torben and several of the people who commented have admirably clear and succinct in what they wrote.)

That said, I want to address a couple of points that affect or touch upon several of the comments, and that I think will be provocative, if not controversial. First, I want to indicate my agreement that not all individual processes (and theories ab out them) translate to aggregate behavior without modification, e.g. the grieving process. While I think the stages exist in multiple settings, the salience and coherence of the progression/process diminishes the larger and more diffuse the group involved.

While I am familiar with several models and theories about change, I want to address the most general level, i.e. one for which all variables apply to all levels of a phenomenon. It doesn’t make it better, and certainly does not for precise application, but it sets the territory. Think, for example of Newton’s Laws which seem to apply to all dynamics that don’t (actively) invoke quantum or relativistic theory. Then, consider Boyle’s Law which states invariate interactions/effects of the variables of Volume, Temperature, and Pressure. In a fixed volume environment, alter one, and the others will change in predictable ways. The change theory I invoke is – to me – somewhere between Newton’s and Boyle’s level of generality for human affairs, and is probably familiar to every reader here.

It was first formulated as a x b x c > r (Beckhart and Harris), and later for comprehension and mnemonic purposes expressed as D x V x F > R (Dannemiller and Trenkle — )Dissatisfaction (with present condition) x Vision (of desirable future) x First Steps (toward the Vision) have to be greater than Resistance for (desirable) change to occur. The formula applies to individuals through societies (being mindful of my earlier comment about diffuseness). It is one was of addressing Resistance. About fifteen years ago I changed the model in my practice (and consultant trainings) to D x V x F > I. I = Inertia.

This is not the place to articulate the full reasoning for this. Were there subtype available here there would be a small r under/beside the I. In organizational change some of the difficulty is with direct resistance (i.e. opposition), but to a greater extent it is usually a consequence of the social and cultural Inertia already occurring. Further, a lot of resistance is to altering inertia, not the objects of a change initiative itself. (In physics resistance only acts in direct connection to inertia, be it friction, ohms, or other forms. It is, in fact, why Newton viewed the universe as entropic.)

I have found that dealing explicitly with inertia (in design and in conversation during intervention) ameliorates what seem to be effects of resistance. It provides a deeper clearer focus on the field of endeavor, it eliminates (almost) the appearance of resistance to consultants involved, it allows people to more easily see for themselves and share changes they want that are in line with what is being proposed.

I doubt this will change people’s beliefs, but I wanted to put it out to think about.

There have been a variety of responses to this post, agreeing or disagreeing with its premise. But I think we can all agree on a couple things: 1) Change is not going away; in fact the rate of change seems to be increasing every day. 2) Since change is not going away, we all need to think about the best ways to deal with it, and to minimized the negative impacts. In that sense, I think this post has been very successful in generating some good discussion. Thank you to everyone who has provided their insight.

Torben, I liked the article and like Arthur Lerner, believe there are a number of data points to understand the change – resistance relationship. Certainly Newton’s laws confirm an object (or culture) at rest, doesn’t move unless impacted by a larger force. But you can also add to that with Kuhn’s work in the Structure of Scientific Revolution, noting historically how the resistance to change prevents adopting new data easily until the old model is broken, and then there’s the wonderful research in the mid-90’s on farmers adopting new seed and farming technology in the US, widely displayed as the adoption of innovation curve with early, middle and late majority, which you see people like Moore writing about in his book, Crossing the Chasm.

Rodney Brim

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