Resistance to Organizational Change. Causes, Attitudes and Mitigations

Greek Philosopher Heraclitus once said, “The only thing that is constant is change.” Although this statement was made in the mid B.C. years it still rings true today.  Change is constant, but our acceptance and attitude towards change makes all the difference.  Businesses can grow or fail based on their skill at managing change, and their response to the potential resistance to change.

Causes of Resistance

Resistance to change is an emotional response brought on by individuals undergoing a potential change.  Often the initial emotion is fear, due to a lack of knowledge, and a concern for the unknown.  In organizations, the first response when employees hear of a looming change brings with it a concern for how the changes will impact them personally.  Job loss, pay reduction, or an overburdened workload are the initial concerns brought about with the thought, “How will this affect me?”  This fear of the unknown can lead to resistance and left untended can easily transfer to other employees and also customers.

Organizational Change Trust

As uninformed employees begin to talk through the impending change allowing fear to grow, a mistrust develops.  This mistrust can have a cyclic impact within organizations.  Employees who do not trust, or who fear their leaders, are less productive.  Robert Hurley of the Harvard Business Review (2006) stated “Although you’ll never see a financial statement with a line item labelled Distrust, the WorldCom fiasco underscores just how expensive broken trust can be” (Hurley, 2006).

Upon surveying executive seminar participants regarding working environments that include low levels of trust, Hurley found respondents frequently used words such as, “stressful,” “threatening,” “divisive,” “unproductive,” and “tense” (Hurley, 2006).  In turn these feelings lead to reduced productivity and decreased customer satisfaction that eventually have a negative financial impact on the organization, leading to necessary change, and then greater resistance.

Organizational Change The Vicious Cycle of Resistance

Managing emotions is paramount when dealing with change resistors.  In the Academy of Management Journal, Nguyen, Corley and Kraatz (2014) write about emotional reactions to change and say, “Emotional reactions often generate a change in readiness to act that prepares people to take action.  People determine a potential action response as they evaluate their own abilities to deal with the event.  If they determine they have adequate resources to deal with the event, they are more likely to respond actively.  Otherwise, they may adopt a passive/avoidance approach, which could be interpreted as a form of resistance to change.  As emotional reactions can impact both thinking and behaviour, they could influence subsequent legitimacy judgements and resistance to change.” (p. 1655-1656)

How Personal Attitudes Shape Transitions

Personal attitudes can also hamper the progress of change and impact the transition process.  As individuals vary in their predispositions towards change their behaviour and acceptance of change will differ.  In discussing individual resistance to organizational change, Dr. Chuang, professor of International Business at Chein Hsin University in Taiwan stated, “It is often assumed that everyone in an organization shares the same objective and homogenous reality, but not all participants facing a change initiative encounter the same conditions.  Differences in participant responses to change usually reflect either misunderstandings about the change or individual characteristics and attributes.” (Chuang, 2012)

Individuals navigate organizational changes with a varying set of emotions that change management specialists relate directly to the Five Stages of Grief, as outlined by noted psychiatrist and hospice pioneer, Elizabeth Kubler Ross (“Elisabeth Kubler Ross Foundation”, n.d.).  Stages of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance experienced during a tragic loss are similar to the emotions of employees undergoing organizational change.  Though I would argue, the grief in managing organizational change is not as intense, and emotions can fluctuate from one stage to another in an unpredictable pattern based on how and when information is disseminated.  Additionally, these 5 stages do not consider the emotions of fear and hope, which can cause or alleviate resistance.

Organizational Change Believe you Can

When emotions flare, progress is inhibited.  Our attitudes toward change, failure, and short-comings impact our resiliency, and maladaptation to change can have a detrimental effect on profits.  In the Journal for Quality and Participation, Rick Maurer (2011) wrote, “In average organizations the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is 1.5:1.  In world-class organizations, the ratio of engaged to actively engaged employees is near 8:1.  Actively disengaged employees erode an organization’s bottom line while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process” (p. 18).

The paper goes on to tell us that within the U.S. the estimated cost of lost productivity due to disengagement is more than $300 billion (Maurer, 2011).

Mitigating Potential Resistance

Effective and timely communication is one of the best ways to alleviate the burden of fear when it comes to organizational change.  Including all levels of the organization in the process enables empowerment and ownership of the change process, thereby enabling a smoother transition.

In an article written for the Journal of Accountancy, Ken Tysiac’s interview with former FASB chairman Robert Herz quoted Herz as saying, “Leading and managing groups is about one L word, and then lots of C words“ (Tysiac, 2013).  The L refers to leadership, while the C’s refer to collegiality, and clear, candid, communication.  I would add one more C, collaboration.

Creating a collaborative environment where all members of the organization are invited to participate in bi-directional open discussions, enhances communication and empowers those who would not ordinarily be considered the decision-makers.  Including every individual in every part of the change process is not realistic, however all members have something to contribute, and therefore become more engaged when included in relevant parts of the process.

The fact remains that communication regarding change is interpretive, based on how the impending change is communicated by leadership, as well as how the information is absorbed by the employee.  Further interpretation is based on the trust level between management and employee.  The content of the change is of equal importance as the change agent, and the format of the message.  When trust is high and fear is low employees are more receptive to change. “Whether employees accept a controversial change might depend on the extent to which they evaluate the change content and/or the change agent as legitimate or not” (Nguyen et al).

Along with effective communication a prevailing consideration in mitigating resistance to change involves the perception of justice.  Employees who feel they are treated fairly, and who enjoy a high level of trust with management are more receptive to change measures.  Nese Sahuran’s paper for the Business and Economics Research Journal (2014) tells us that, “Theories on organizational justice indicate that fair treatment is central to people’s relationships and is a major determinant in their reactions to third-party decisions” (p. 150).

Perceived fairness is concerned with distribution of resources such as authority, responsibility, power, prestige, and finances.  If the distribution of these resources is perceived to be fair, employees will react more favourably and remain more open to changes in the organization (Sahuran, 2014).

Organizational Change How we Look at Things

There is no doubt, fear and mistrust are the prevailing responses that encourage resistance to flourish.  Preventing those emotional reactions by communicating effectively in a clear and candid manner, and using proper timing when communicating will build trust and reduce fear of the unknown, enabling employee’s receptiveness to change.  Creating an organizational environment that is collaborative, and provides a perception of justice, will enhance employee participation in the change effort, and encourage a smoother transition.  Managing human emotions is the most important factor when managing change. Organizations change when people do.

To quote author and leadership guru Frances Hesselbein, “Culture does not change because we desire to change it.  Culture changes when the organization is transformed – the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.”

2 Replies to “Resistance to Organizational Change. Causes, Attitudes and Mitigations”

  1. I really enjoyed this article. As a student of Public Administration, and as a public servant, I find the observations made here to be a immense value.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Luther, Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you find the information valuable. I wonder though, do you find the situation similar in public service? Do you think public service employees are more or less resistant to change?


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