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Resistance to change comes in many shapes and sizes, and it manifests through all sorts of employee behaviors. Although resistance can cause difficulties during a change project, not all resistance is bad. If you understand how to identify the root causes and best actions to take, you can even even benefit from it. 

Three forms of resistance

Before we explore "good" resistance, let's think about three forms of resistance:

Resistance that is natural

This form of resistance is tied to the natural, human reaction when things around us change. Key sources of this type of resistance include fear of the unknown and loss of stability during change. In times of change, resistance is a psychological and physiological reaction, which we should expect to some degree. However, we can mitigate this resistance by applying solid change management.

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Resistance that stems from not managing the people side of change

This form of resistance emerges from a failure on the part of the project team, leadership team and  management team to effectively engage employees during times of change. Such resistance often stems from unanswered employee questions, such as: "Why is this change happening?" "Why is it happening now?" and "Why should I should get on board?" "Will I be adequately prepared to succeed when the change is implemented?" When these questions go unanswered, employees will resist the change. Not because they are opposed to it, but because they have not been engaged in the process. This resistance can be prevented through effective change management, mitigated through proactive resistance management, and addressed through reactive resistance management.

Resistance that is an informed disagreement with the change

This is what we are going to call "good" resistance. Employees exhibiting this type of resistance have worked through the natural reaction and have received answers to their questions. Yet, they are still resistant because they disagree with an aspect of the change or the solution. It is important to surface and act upon this information because this type of opposition typically unearths issues that the project team needs to address if the project is going to deliver the intended business results.

Resistance due to informed disagreement with a change is perhaps an unusual notion. Traditionally, resistance is considered a barrier to project progress or success. After all, if individuals do not embrace and adopt the change, the change cannot be realized. The important message here is that all resistance cannot be viewed or treated the same way. Just as resistance does not always stem from a lack of Desire, certain forms of resistance can be used to the benefit the project and improve outcomes. Employees are end-users, customer facing, or directly impacted by the change, which makes them valuable resources for the change team.

How TO identify "good" resistance

We usually don't know what prompts an employee to walk through the door and say, "This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard," "Here we go again," or "What do they think they are doing to us?" Is it a natural reaction to change? Is it poor change management? Or, is it good resistance in the form of an informed disagreement with the change? We need to identify and isolate the root cause of resistance to determine if it is something we can help the employee work through, or if it constitutes something we need to surface and analyze at a project level.

The first step to analyzing the root cause of resistance is to conduct an assessment based on the ADKAR Model. It is important to remember that change practitioners are not usually the right people to communicate messages and dig out the root cause of resistance. Instead, you should enlist managers and seniors leaders to ask questions, listen to employees, enable feedback loops, and provide coaching. When conducting root cause analysis, you should also coach managers to ask questions such as:

  • "Why do you think the change is happening?"
  • "Do you support this change?"
  • "Do you have the training you need?"
  • "Are you having difficulties implementing the required skills and behaviors?"
  • "Are you getting the reinforcement you need?"

If you can verify through assessments, surveys, informal chats or formal conversations that an employee is resistant because the solution or implementation process is broken or not suitable, you have identified a form of good resistance. Consider this a benefit to your project because you can use this information to improve your process and achieve better outcomes.

Let's consider an example. A large retail store decided to replace traditional barcode scanners with smart phones. This change would allow employees to carry fewer and slimmer devices. Employees were excited about the change, and change management was actively present throughout the change process. The smart phones were administered to employees, and training was provided. But a few weeks after deployment to one particular store, employees started leaving the new phones behind as they continued with day-to-day activities. As the perceived resistance became more and more persistent, the project team spoke with floor managers to uncover why employees were not using the new, much anticipated devices. It became apparent that the smart phones did not function properly as actual phones, as originally intended. Upon further analysis, they learned that the phones deployed to this store did not undergo proper testing beforehand. In the end, the resistance from employees actually helped identify a functionality failure of the new devices.

Informed disagreement with a change can be "good" resistance, which can serve as essential input for those designing, developing and implementing the change. This is not to say that all resistance is good or that resistant behaviors should be reinforced. But it is important to conduct proper root cause analysis in the face of resistance to avoid missing important information that could potentially benefit the project and outcomes.

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Action steps for "good" resistance

Addressing natural resistance and resistance stemming from unanswered questions requires applying effective change management and resistance management techniques. "Good" resistance due to informed disagreement requires different actions. Instead of taking this resistance at face value, we should work to uncover deeper insights. To effectively act on this type of "good" resistance, we must collect then convey the resistance and reasons behind it to the project team.

Step 1: Collect

The first step is to capture this resistance and its root causes—especially for "good" resistance where the root cause is often tied to the solutions or decisions coming from the project team. Be as clear and concrete as possible when capturing the specific objections or informed disagreement. As in the example above, managers and supervisors (those closest to the employees who must bring the solution to life in their day-to-day work) can often provide insights to help you clarify reasons behind the resistance you're documenting.

Step 2: Convey

Communicate objections and informed-disagreement points to the project team. Even if the project team designed the solution with the end user in mind, it's impossible to foresee every potential obstacle. Conveying the feedback from the resistant employees to the project team will offer a starting point for adjusting the solution or implementation process and can significantly improve the outcomes.

Understand and Manage Resistance

Resistance can be quite complex. But once we understand the different forms, we can begin to manage it. And some forms of resistance can be leveraged to improve aspects of the project and positively impact business outcomes. In the case of informed disagreement from an employee who has the Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement necessary to change, there may be an opportunity to gain valuable insights about potential flaws or other issues with the project or implementation process. Collecting and conveying this information to the project team can help you achieve better overall success with change.

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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.