Isn't resistance the natural reaction to change? In times of change, the natural reaction is to resist. Whether they are happening at home, in the community or in the workplace - changes introduce the unknown. They take us out of a place we know and are comfortable with and force us into something new. We do not know what to expect, and we anticipate hardships and struggles as we leave the current state.

Teams introducing change in an organization should not be surprised by resistance. In fact, they should anticipate resistance and work to mitigate the consequences of that resistance. Resistance cannot be totally eradicated, but it can be managed constructively, proactively and before the project or the people in the organization are impacted.

What are the costs of resistance?

Resistance to change does not come without a cost. Most organizations have countless stories of the negative and unintended consequences of resistance to change. Resistance is not merely a nuisance; it has meaningful and costly consequences.

Some costs of resistance include:

  • Project delays
  • Missed objectives
  • Productivity declines
  • Absenteeism
  • Loss of valued employees

While resistance is sometimes viewed as a "soft" issue, each of the costs of resistance listed above can have significant financial consequences on the projects and change efforts going on in your organization. Managing resistance to change is critical to the success of the changes you are introducing in the new year.

Tactics for neutralizing resistance to change

Identifying the root cause of resistance (to avoid missing the mark)

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to treat the symptom, not the cause. This is especially true when dealing with resistance to change in an organizational setting. Treating the symptom is ineffective because it does not fix what is broken. Additionally, treating only the symptom can actually further aggravate those who are resisting the change. Instead of addressing their objection, you further frustrate them.

The ADKAR Model - Prosci's individual change model - is an effective tool for identifying the root cause of resistance. It breaks successful change down in to the key building blocks of Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement. When a change is not taking hold and there is resistance, The ADKAR Model can be used to focus in on why the resistance is happening. Is the resistance cause by a lack of awareness of the need for change? Is it a result of no desire to change? Is it caused by lack of knowledge, or a fear of not having the knowledge to be successful once the change is in place? Are there barriers to ability that are resulting in the resistance? Or, is a lack of reinforcement causing the resistance?

Change management practitioners - and the "real" resistance managers covered in the third tactic below - can use The ADKAR Model to understand and manage the root cause of resistance. Find out more about The ADKAR Model in the paperback book ADKAR: a model for change in business, government and our community.


Making a compelling case for change; balancing urgency and reason

In Prosci's last two benchmarking studies, the number one reason cited by participants for employees resistance was lack of awareness of the need for change. A lack of awareness also showed up in the top five reasons managers resisted change in both studies. The moral of the story is this: in today's organizations you must make a compelling case for change. It is not enough to say "here is the change" - you must clearly illustrate the reasons for the change AND the risks of not changing if you hope to get employees on board.

There are a couple of interesting connections related to the compelling case for change. The case for change shows up in the ADKAR Model in the first building block - Awareness. It is basic human nature to want the answer to "why" when we are asked to change. This is true for changes happening at home as well as changes happening at work. If we are left wondering "why", we tend to hold back our support and buy-in. We begin resisting the change, not because we disagree with it, but because no one has convinced us why the change was happening in the first place. Second, in today's organizations where employees have been empowered, it is even more important to build a compelling case for change. Over the last twenty years, organizations have worked to push decision making, ownership and accountability deeper down in the organization. It is no surprise, then, that when we ask employees to "jump" their reaction is to ask "why" instead of "how high". New value systems have resulted in a more engaged workforce, but they have also affected how we must manage change.

The first step in engaging a workforce - and in addressing the greatest cause for resistance - is making a compelling case for change. When asked who employees want to hear the case for change from, participants in Prosci's benchmarking study overwhelmingly cited senior leaders as the preferred sender. You will need to work with senior leaders to ensure they are delivering effective communications about the need for change.


Engaging the "real" resistance managers

The "real" resistance managers are those who can listen to and engage resistant employees. This is not the project leader. It is not a member of the project team. It is not an HR or OD professional. And it is not the change management resource supporting a project. The "real" resistance managers are the supervisors and managers throughout your organization whose employees are impacted by the change.

Unfortunately, managers and supervisors have been identified as the most resistant group. This creates a dilemma for those introducing change. The people you need on board and involved in introducing the change and managing resistance may themselves be resistant. You must first manage the change with managers and supervisors before engaging them as agents of change with their direct reports. This means helping each of them through the ADKAR Model change process - Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement.

For many of your managers and supervisors, "managing resistance" is a new job role requiring skills and experience that have not been developed. It is not enough to tell managers that you need their help in managing resistance - you must provide them the training and tools they need to identify and manage resistance from their employees. 


Now that we have talked about managing resistance, we need to address how we should be avoiding resistance in the first place. Most organizations experience a higher level of employee resistance than necessary because of one simple reason: they fail to manage the change with a structured process and dedicated resources for change management. This failure only results in a greater need for fire-fighting and damage control later on. Your first step for managing resistance is actually to implement effective change management at the onset of your project. If you do this, you will find that the adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is really true when it comes to change and managing resistance. 

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.