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Resistance and overcoming resistance is the heart of change management and leadership. It is, arguably, THE job.

Resistance and Overcoming Resistance to Change

Change management risk and resistance

     A change management support campaign is a project with typical project risks (e.g., Will things happen on time? Will resources and support be available when needed? Will outside factors confound plans?) As a supporting part of an underlying project, it inherits some of those risks as well.

Change resistance is the key risk for change management

     The real change management risk is resistance. Reduced to its raison d’être, change management is finally about avoiding, eliminating, and overcoming resistance to change. Were it not for resistance, there would hardly be a need and certainly no challenge for change management. Without resistance, the necessary informing and educating (training) could be handled by the project manager and domain experts. But that’s hardly ever the case.

     Dealing with resistance is straight-forward: communicate, educate, influence. For most circumstances the remedy will be to apply the techniques and tactics of one or several focus areas. If the tactic works, excellent. If it doesn’t, try another.

     Establishing that (i) there may be or is resistance and then (ii) figuring out its cause is the challenge and core of this focus.

The Playbook is for practically managing resistance risk

     In this Playbook, we consider how to practically manage resistance risk. For simplicity, there are three, sequential parts. The first (A) is part of preparation. The second (B) is the heart of resistance management. The third part (C) is remediation.

After Anticipate & Plan, resistance management action follows a fairly common 3-step method: Confirm & Assess; Diagnose & Prescribe; and Remedy

Addressing resistance

Preparation is the most important part of overcoming resistance

     There will be resistance. The question is whether it will be significant or not. With proper preparation, you will stamp out as much as possible, avoid a lot of what comes through, and successfully beat back the remnants. You’ll do this because you will have anticipated where resistance is likely to come from and why.

     Proper preparation starts by understanding and being ruthlessly clear about what specific changes to behaviour and attitude will be required of whom. It’s the resistance by people who have to do something different that is concerning. Others, not specifically affected, that might vigorously and vocally resist are agitators. They need to be dealt with by others more equipped to make the case for being a “team player” in an organization. Agitators are an irritation.

     Fulsome preparation considers the culture of the organization, specifically of those parts that are affected. A quick historical survey of previous changes or attempts to change—especially among those affected—would be instructive. This survey might reveal how resistance in those cases was (un)successfully averted or overcome. Lessons learned documents are a good starting point.

Two critical questions to prepare for overcoming resistance

     Understanding the mission and the circumstances, the final part of preparation is to moot out two things.

  1. What is the (advance) indicator that resistance of some particular sort is afoot?
  2. What is the response protocol to that resistance?

These need not be elaborate, but must be adequate to objectively trigger response. It is way too easy in the moment to change your assessment of the situation viz. risk. Set triggers when cool heads prevail. (Like determining a maximum eBay auction bid.) Then, when a specific resistance risk is triggered, you will have your first, second, and maybe third response Moves ready to go.

Overcoming resistance plans focus on countering resistance

     At this point the project is deploying and the change management activities are in progress. At a regular or ad hoc resistance risk management meeting, some evidence of resistance to change becomes clear. This step is part of the B–>C ongoing cycle to deal with resistance.

     Fortunately, if preparations were made, this section is actually fairly easy. It consists of matching observed resistance to the anticipated resistance register and triggers to identify and exactly—or nearly—match what’s going on to what you expected. If done correctly, once the resistance has been identified and isolated, the response protocol is provided. The artful chore at this stage is to assess and customize prepared response(s) to suit the actual situation. It is likely that the realized resistance will be like but not exactly what was anticipated (different people, slightly different issue driving the resisters, etc.). Massage what you planned.

Then, assign it to be done. This is key to rapid response. Having an identification protocol, triggers, and prepared responses is important. Having a specific person assigned to the response will ensure it is more likely to be effective should it be needed.

Applying tactics to remedy organizational change resistance

     Nike nicely sums up this step: Just Do It™.

     Having confirmed some realized resistance and assessed it against what was anticipated, you have a prescribed response to your diagnosis. The response may have a plan A, B, and even C. So, whomever was assigned to fix the problem needs to go forth with plan A.

     Plan A, B… Z will be tactical variations to the change management plan. Maybe it’s additional explanation or information (communication); maybe training or coaching for skills; or maybe it’s an issue that warrants escalation. There should be relatively little to design and develop anew.[1] The response protocol prepared in advance, with escalating response options, allows for this stage to iterate should resistance requires stronger medicine than that being given. But, again, that should have been mostly sorted out during the preparations.

Resistance management sounds straightforward. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge and warn that you will probably be wrong as often as right when you set responses to your anticipated problems in the first stage. At some point you will very likely end up wondering what to do.

     Do not look too far afield too quickly. While you may end up having to rethink something new on the fly, chances are your initial thoughts and plans were close… just inadequate. Look at your other resistance-countering tactics: what factor is now in the current experience? Did the resister maintain his/her reason but change the rationale? Did the resister concede but find another reason to resist? Did the nature of the resistance change? There is a good chance you have the solution but your diagnosis is a little astray.

Resistance risk management and getting past resistance is the raison d’être for change management. It’s not complicated and the tools for the job are available. The magic is figuring out which to use and being deft in deploying it. Those come with experience.

The Immutable 3-Ps of overcoming resistance to change

    The three Ps of overcoming resistance to change are:

  1. Persuasion
  2. Patience
  3. Persistence

     Pretty simple and, in fact, recommended in best practice training. Let’s define and describe them.


     Persuasion is usually implied more than stated in proper company. That’s unfortunate. Ultimately the objective is to get others to see things your way and to follow your lead. That is persuasion. The means are immaterial so long as they’re ethical, appropriate, and honest.


     Change rarely, if ever happens quickly. It is a process that takes time and repetition. Not only do you need to find the right way to “persuade” them (maybe facts maybe emotions, maybe…), you have to connect with them.


     Persistence is the active part of patience: trying and trying again. You have to persist. You have to stay with it until the goal is accomplished (THEY change), not just until you have performed the task (YOU told them). Eventually, change will happen. It always does.

Use the 3-Ps for managing resistance to change

     These 3-Ps are the fundamental core of overcoming resistance. Anything else is a derivation or gimmick. Luckily, they are valuable for just about everything else you might be called upon to achieve in life.

     The 3-Ps are such universally applicable drives, they are even expressed by non-humans. A sheepdog, for instance, persuades by getting a few “early adopters” in the herd of ewes (the “change champions”) to start moving the desired way. The dog keeps gentle pressure on the herd from every direction, moving around from left to right and back so they keep moving. When one straggles (the “resister”) the dog moves close to communicate. When the sheep moves, the dog responds; when the sheep pushes back the dog lets it move and uses that energy to gently turn it the right direction. This dance goes on for a while. The dog patiently and persistently persuades the herd to the desired path. At no time does this change manager bark or snap at those who are to change.

Understanding why people resist change is the place to start

Dealing with resistance is at least a 2-step process: (1) understand or unearth, then (2) address and assuage.

Classes of objection to organizational change

     There are literally infinite reasons for people to object and resist. Broadly, however, these fall into five classes, ordered from most to least troublesome.

  • Value and belief conflicts — Values and beliefs run deep. Conflict with a person’s true values and beliefs is sure to result in resistance, rebuttal, or rebellion.
  • Status and self-conception — Particularly these days, we are all very wrapped up in who and what we are (our “brands”). Anything perceived to diminish this psycho-social status will not be well accepted.
  • (Organizational) Politics — Whether at the individual or “tribal” (team, department, etc.) level, we tend to oppose things that impinge on our turf.
  • Self-Limitation — Whether skills or perception or otherwise, people tend to oppose what they can’t understand or perceive, and more so can’t see, or do.
  • Objective objections — Sometimes people object for genuine, objective reasons. They have thought things through and come to a different conclusion. And they seem to be willing to die on that particular hill.

Typical reasons for resistance to organizational change

     Remember, not all individuals resist change and some may even embrace it. Change agents and leaders have to understand at least some common reasons why people may resist change in some way on some level. There are many; only a few follow.

  1. Organizational culture and norms: Organizational culture and norms shape employees’ social behaviors and attitudes towards change. If an organization has a culture that resists change or change benefits have not been effectively communicated, employees may resist it.
  2. Fear of the unknown: Change often involves stepping into the unknown, sometimes triggering fear and discomfort. People prefer the familiar and predictable even if it is not optimal, because it feels safer and more comfortable. People are creatures of habit. Familiarity provides comfort and security, while change disrupts established routines.
  3. Loss of control: Change can disrupt established routines and patterns, and people may feel they are losing control over their familiar way of doing things. Loss of control can be unsettling.
  4. Fear of failure: Change comes with (perceived) risk and potential for failure. People may worry about the consequences of change, such as making mistakes or facing negative outcomes.
  5. Emotional attachment: People almost always develop emotional attachments to the status quo, especially if they have invested time and effort into a particular way of doing things. Change that challenges emotional attachments usually is resisted.
  6. Past negative experiences: Previous negative experiences with change, such as failed change initiatives or negative outcomes, often result in cynical resistance to later changes.

Psychological matters are the root of resistance to change

     Resistance starts in—or at least passes through—the mind. It’s not necessary to be a psychoanalyst, but being aware of active psychological phenomena can’t hurt. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking that influence decision-making and perception. Humans are chock-a-block with these. For example:

  1. Loss aversion: People tend to perceive losses more significantly than gains of equal value. Change typically means letting go of something familiar, so it is a loss. People may resist change to avoid perceived losses, even if potential gains from the change outweigh the losses.
  2. Confirmation bias: People tend to seek, interpret, and favour information that confirms existing beliefs or attitudes, while ignoring or dismissing information that challenges them. Faced with change, people may selectively perceive information that supports their resistance to it.
  3. Cognitive dissonance: Discomfort arises from holding conflicting beliefs or attitudes. If change challenges a person’s existing beliefs or attitudes, it creates cognitive dissonance. People may resist change to smooth out this feeling.
  4. Habitual thinking: A habit is a mental shortcut (heuristic) that relies on familiar patterns of thought and behavior. Change disrupts habitual thinking patterns, requiring conscious effort and cognitive resources to adapt. Nobody wants to put in more effort when “It’s already been figured out.” Thus resistance.
  5. Emotional reactions: Emotions such as fear, anxiety, and uncertainty (and others) can be triggered by change. Emotional responses influence cognitive processes and decision-making. For example, fear of the unknown can become resistance to a change perceived as a threat to emotional well-being.

     Change agents and leaders should design change initiatives to align with these and other psychological and cognitive factors to address (potential) resistance to change.

     Change always impacts individuals at a deeply personal level—even at work, and addressing these issues with empathy and understanding can be critical in managing and mitigating resistance to change.

[1]   If you find yourself needing to develop, let alone design something beyond your existing arsenal of tactics, maybe more preparation is in order.

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