Prosci defines change management as the application of a structured process and set of tools for managing the people side of change to reach a desired outcome. But how often do we see change management and resistance management used synonymously? If your answer is "quite often" then you are not alone. While Prosci emphasizes that change management is composed of many tools, strategies and techniques for managing the people side of change, one of the primary plans developed through Prosci's 3-Phase Change Management Methodology is a resistance management plan. Because the reality is that resistance will be faced during any effort in which people must change something about the way they do work.

What is resistance management?

There is no one recipe for perfectly managing resistance. In reality, resistance management is largely shaped by timing and circumstances. Are you just beginning a project and are already hearing grumbling? Are you about to go-live but have a block in the pipeline from a resistant supervisor? Regardless of where you are in the change process, there are steps you can take to prevent, anticipate and react to resistance. Prosci has built out three avenues for managing resistance, which you can apply no matter where you are in the change process, to minimize the negative impacts of resistance.

  1. Resistance prevention
  2. Proactive resistance management
  3. Reactive resistance management 

1. Resistance prevention

The application of a structured process and set of tools for managing the people side of change to achieve business outcomes. This should sound familiar. This is what Prosci considers "applying effective change management" in the first place. This is:

  • Engaging sponsors to communicate, build coalitions and actively engage in the change

  • Establishing clear and tailored communications plans that target specific audiences

  • Enabling managers to be great change advocates and leaders of change

  • Ensuring that all impacted groups receive the appropriate training at the appropriate time

  • Envisioning the thorough integration of the change management plan with the project plan

These core aspects of organizational change management are the action steps taken to support employees through change. When we apply a structured approach to change management, as described above, we answer the lingering questions employees have, such as: Why is this change happening? What is in it for me? Why should I get on board? When employees are armed with the answers to these questions, they are less likely to resist when the time comes to make the change.

The effective application of change management is, in and of itself, intended in large part to prevent resistance. Change management is not only about resistance prevention, but resistance prevention is all about the effective application of change management.

2. Proactive resistance management

Proactive resistance management addresses anticipated or already identified resistance. There are a few key activities that need to take place before you can begin implementing your change management plans, such as conducting the necessary assessments to ensure your plan is tailored to your change and organization. In addition, a key component of this strategy building (which may also come out of your initial assessments) is identifying anticipated points of resistance. Here are a few scenarios where resistance can be anticipated:

  • If you already know of a division of your organization that has a history of failed changes, perhaps you can anticipate that they will be skeptical of a new initiative.

  • If you have a group of senior employees looking to retire, and the change initiative will impact their pension plans, then you can anticipate they will require more attention.

  • If you have a group of people who are heavily invested in the current state, the ones you are about to displace with your change are a likely source of resistance.

  • If one group was advocating for Solution A, and ultimately the decision was made to select Solution B, then you can expect resistance from this group.

  • Or perhaps the most impactful of all changes, if your change includes lay-offs or staff reductions, this change will certainly inspire resistance and will require proactive resistance management.

Proactive resistance management is about acting on your and the project team's foresight. Rather than waiting for the project post mortem and saying "I could have told you that group would resist this change," act on that knowledge upfront. The management of this anticipated resistance must be proactively built into change management plans and/or addressed early. There is no reason to wait for resistance to rear its head before you act. Anticipate it. Review the organization's history with change, identify high risk or highly impacted groups, and proactively plan accordingly.

3. Reactive resistance management

Resistance is the natural reaction to change. You can apply excellent change management and anticipate potential problems, and yet you can also count on resistance still surfacing during the change process. Reactive resistance management answers the question, "How will we react when resistance to change occurs?"

  1. The first step when applying reactive resistance management is to identify the root cause of the resistance. Tools such as the Prosci ADKAR Model, or an exercise such as "The Five Whys", can be applied to help determine, or learn more about, an employee's or departments root cause of resistance.
  2. Once the root cause is identified, there is a set of steps you can take when resistance becomes enduring and persistent. These steps include a range of activities performed by different players, from simply listening, removing barriers, focusing on the "what" instead of the "how," and offering clear choices and consequences, to more stark measures, such as showing the benefits in a real and tangible way, converting the strongest dissenters, or in extreme cases, removing an extremely resistant individual.
  3. The third component to reactive resistance management is enabling and empowering the appropriate resistance managers. While change management practitioners must be the conductors of change management efforts, they are rarely in employee-facing roles. In the case of resistance managers, the most effective people for fulfilling these roles is the person closest to employees—managers and supervisors. It should be noted that this is a role that managers and supervisors struggle with, and so it is important that they are enabled with the steps listed above to help manage resistance with their employees.


Resistance does not occur in a vacuum—both personal and organizational contexts must be maintained. In addition, it is important to not underestimate the power of comfort with the current state. Movement from the current state to the future state leads to stress and anxiety for impacted employees. The good news is that you have the power to control the duration, cost and severity of the effects of resistance to change.

Download the Managing Resistance to Change Executive Summary

Written by
Tim Creasey
Tim Creasey

Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.