Change management practitioners and business leaders often underestimate the level of comfort with the current state. The natural and normal reaction to change is resistance. Every individual has a threshold for how much change they can absorb. Moreover, some employees will resist the change no matter what. Even when individuals can align the change with their self-interest and belief system, the uncertainty of success and fear of the unknown can block change.

Resistance to change can spread and become a significant barrier to success. One-fourth of major change initiatives fail because employees are fearful of and resistant to change. Although initial resistance is a natural reaction to change, ongoing resistance left unattended can become a threat to the business and to customers. A critical component of any good change management process will be a program to proactively manage resistance. In order to be prepared to proactively manage resistance, it is important to:

  1. Have a context setting for the resistance
  2. Be familiar with key principles and lessons regarding managing resistance

Context setting

Managers cannot dictate or control an employee's desire to change. Employees choose. However, that does not mean that managers are powerless to manage change in this step of the process. The enablers or elements that may create a desire to change include:

  • Fear of job loss
  • Discontent with the current state
  • Imminent negative consequences
  • Enhanced job security
  • Affiliation and sense of belonging
  • Career advancement
  • Acquisition of power or position
  • Ownership for the future state
  • Incentive or compensation
  • Trust and respect for leadership
  • Hope in future state

Personal context for change

The above positive and negative motivating factors are evaluated by employees within the following personal context:

  • An employee's personal and family situation (health, financial position, stability, mobility, relationships, etc.)
  • An employee's professional career history and plans (successes, failures, promotions, aspirations, years left before retirement, 2nd career potential, etc.)
  • The degree that this change will affect them personally (in some cases even large changes can have only a minimal impact on some employees)

Organizational context for change

Employees also evaluate these positive and negative motivating factors based on:

  • An organization's history with change (past change success or failure, the likelihood that this change will really happen, consequences for employees that have resisted change in the past)
  • An organization's values and culture (how the organization treats employees and how employees treat one another)

Key principles

Resistance and comfort

Do not underestimate the power of "comfort" with how things are today. The natural reaction to change is resistance. Moreover, every individual has a threshold for how much change they can absorb based on their personal and organizational context for change.

You should anticipate resistance to change as the norm and not the exception. Your goal for change management is not to eliminate resistance, but rather to minimize the impact this resistance has on employees and the business.

Prosci's Flight Risk Model

Prosci’s Flight Risk Model shows the potential impacts of not managing change over time. The longer the organization remains in the “high-stress” risk and flight region (the red-zone), the more extreme will be the consequences for employees, customers and the business.

The two factors that you can influence with effective change management include the time or duration the organization remains under stress, and the degree or depth of that stress.

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The goal of effective change management is to achieve the curve shown in the figure above where the organization avoids the initial shock and minimizes or avoids the time in the red-zone. Poor change management is characterized by a rapid fall into the risk and flight zone with the organization remaining in that region for an extended period of time (see the image below).

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Key lessons

The three critical and relevant lessons for change management practitioners related to employee resistance are:

  • Do not react to resistance with surprise; expect it and plan for it. Be patient with individuals as they work their way through the change process. A good resource for employees is the Employee's Survival Guide to Change. It answers frequently asked questions and empowers employees to be effective change agents with the ADKAR Model.
  • Assess resistance not only from individual's natural aversion or dislike to change, but also based on how much other change is going on (what is the capacity for more change).
  • Persistent resistance from mid-level managers is dangerous to the success of the project. Proactive resistance management will be an important part of your change management plans.


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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.