Why People Resist Change in Business (And What to Do About It)

To minimize resistance to organizational change, it is necessary to understand why people resist change in the first place.

Since that resistance can significantly undermine an organizational change project, change practitioners should take a proactive approach to mitigating resistance.

Below, we’ll explore some of the main reasons why people resist change and what can be done to minimize it.

Why People Resist Change and Organizational Transformation

According to the Lewin change management model, there are three stages in the organizational change process:

  • Unfreeze. Before change can take place, old habits, behaviors, and processes must first be dismantled, or “unfrozen.” According to the organizational leadership expert, Edgar Schein, most of the challenges associated with change relate to the process of unlearning, since what we have know often forms an integral part of our identity.
  • Change. During this next stage of the change process, employees undergo cognitive restructuring. That is, they must adopt new behaviors and mindsets. Ultimately, Schein contends, every organizational change involves a certain amount of cultural change.
  • Freeze, or refreeze. Change must be reinforced over time in order for it to stick. If managers and leaders fail to reinforce the change process, employees can easily revert to old behaviors.

This process of organizational transformation can be very disconcerting, Schein claims, resulting in anxiety and fear. Those emotions, in turn, can fuel resistance and defensiveness.

In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Schein outlines several common fears that people have during an organizational change project:

  • The fear of temporary incompetence. As employees transition from the old process to the new, there will inevitably be a period of learning. When employees learn new software, for instance, the lack of proficiency can cause anxiety and fear.
  • The fear of punishment for incompetence. Compounding the fear of temporary incompetence is the fear of punishment for being unproductive. This fear can lead some workers to actually focus too much on staying productive, rather than on learning.
  • The fear of loss of personal identity. For some, personal identities are wrapped up in a particular mode of working, a culture, or a set of behaviors. The breakdown of these can be very difficult for some employees, which can then fuel resistance.
  • The fear of loss of group membership. The adoption of a new corporate culture and new ideas can differentiate an employee from their peers. To avoid losing membership in the group, many employees will resist learning those new processes and ways of thinking.

Schein then details several types of behaviors that employees can engage in, such as denial, scapegoating, and bargaining – all of which are various forms of resistance.

How to Minimize Resistance to Change

To reduce the negative emotions that fuel resistance to change, change leaders should create a sense of psychological safety.

Schein recommends a few techniques for creating that sense of safety:

  • Communicating a compelling positive vision of the organizational change proposal. When employees believe that they are helping to improve the organization, they will be more likely to learn and adopt new ways of thinking.
  • Allowing employees to manage their own formal training and learning. An individual who has a degree of control over their training will be more engaged. After all, every person is unique – when each individual can participate in the design and implementation of their training, they can tailor that program to their own learning styles.
  • Providing informal training to whole groups and teams, rather than just individuals. It is important to train individuals, but cultural change affects entire groups. For that reason, change managers should provide training to departments and teams as well.
  • Ensuring employees have access to coaching and feedback. If employees lack adequate training, they will be unable to gain the appropriate level of competency. To ensure that they can safely meet performance expectations, managers should ensure those employees have access to the necessary coaching and feedback.
  • Modeling the new behaviors and mindsets, so the workforce has an example to follow. Leaders should set an example by becoming role models who exhibit the desired traits and behaviors.

These recommendations align closely with a number of other change management models, such as the Kotter change model.

Like Schein, Kotter also encourages the development of a strong vision for change, since that positive vision of the future can help motivate and engage the workforce. Kotter’s model also echoes a recommendation made by Schein, that accountability systems can help reinforce and institute change.

Final Thoughts

Resistance to change can pose significant risks to any business transformation program or organizational change project – even derailing them completely in a worst case scenario.

It is possible, however, to reduce resistance and replace it with engagement and support.

As we have seen from this exploration of a few of Edgar Schein’s ideas, the best way to do that is by understanding the fears that fuel resistance and then creating a sense of psychological safety to reduce those emotions.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.