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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," you are not alone. The reality is that resistance emerges during any effort in which people must change the way they do their work. Although change management comprises many tools, strategies and techniques for managing the people side of change, one of the primary tools in Prosci's 3-Phase Process is to develop change management plans, including a resistance management plan. 

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 approaching go-live but have encountered a block in the pipeline from a resistant supervisor? Regardless of where you are in the change process, you can take steps to mitigate negative impacts on your change success.

Here are three avenues for managing resistance:

1. Resistance prevention

Prevention starts with applying of a structured process and set of tools for managing the people side of change to achieve business outcomes. In other words, applying effective change management in the first place:

  • Engage sponsors to communicate, build coalitions and actively participate in the change

  • Establish clear and tailored communication plans that target specific audiences

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

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

  • Envision a 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's in it for me? Why should I get on board? When employees have answers to these questions, they are less likely to resist when the time comes to make the change.

Although it's not the only goal, applying effective change management is in large part about preventing resistance.

2. Proactive resistance management

Proactive resistance management addresses anticipated or identified sources of resistance. Before you begin implementing your change management plans, a few key activities must take place, including the necessary assessments to tailor your plans to your change and organization. As part of this strategy building, you will identify anticipated points of resistance.

Here are a few common scenarios where you can anticipate resistance:

  • A division or group within your organization that has a history of failed changes is likely to be skeptical of a new initiative.

  • A group of senior employees nearing retirement will resist any change initiative that impacts pension plans even in small ways.

  • People who are heavily invested in the current state and may be displaced by your change will likely resist the change.

  • A group that advocated for Solution A will be more likely to resist a change to Solution B.

  • Perhaps the most impactful of all changes, layoffs or staff redeployment will certainly trigger resistance.

Proactive resistance management is about acting on foresight. Rather than waiting for the project post mortem, build resistance management into the change management plans or address the issue up front. 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 still count on resistance during the change process. Reactive resistance management means knowing how you will react when resistance occurs.

  1. The first step is to identify the root cause of the resistance. Tools such as the Prosci ADKAR Model or the "The Five Whys" exercise can help you determine or learn more about an employee's or a groups' root cause of resistance.
  2. Once you identify the root cause, you can take certain steps when resistance endures. These include a range of activities performed by different players, from simply listening and removing barriers to focusing on the "what" instead of the "how," and offering clear choices and consequence. You can also take a firmer stance by demonstrating the benefits of a change in a clear and tangible way, converting the strongest dissenters, or in extreme cases, removing a strongly 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 rarely occupy employee-facing roles. The most effective  resistance managers are the people closest to affected employees—their managers and supervisors. It's important to note that resistance management is a role that managers and supervisors struggle with, which is why it is critical for change leaders to to enable them to help manage resistance with their employees.

mitigating the impacts of resistance

Resistance does not occur in a vacuum—you must maintain both personal and organizational contexts. Never underestimate the power of the current state and employees' comfort with it. Moving from the current state to the future state leads to stress and anxiety for everyone impacted. The good news is that you have the power to control the duration, cost and severity of the resistance and its impacts on 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.