Friday, September 7, 2012

Resistance to change: Two Perspectives

Leaders prefer predictability and simplicity.  

Over-simplifying resistance to change is the norm ... someone is either "for us" or "against us" with no in between.  This viewpoint is LETHAL.  If you look at resistance to change in this fashion, it is likely you are part of the 70-80% who fail to successfully implement change.

Resistance to change is a very complex phenomenon in organizations.  If is difficult, if not impossible, to simplify it.  However, that is what organizational researchers try to do ... simplify phenomenon so we can better understand it. 

From the beginning, researchers took one of two sides:  the management perspective (employee-centric resistance) and the employee perspective (balanced-perspective).  The management perspective is that resistance to change is always bad.  To say the the employee perspective is that resisting change is always good would be inaccurate.  Instead, it is sometimes rational and good to resist change, but also irrational and bad to resist change .  We call this the balanced perspective.

Management Perspective

Coch and French (1948) started the management perspective when they published an article called Overcoming Resistance to Change.  While their study was great for its time, Coch was the personnel director (HR) for the Harwood manufacturing plant where the study was conducted.  French was the former personnel director!

Modern day organizational researchers seemed to have embraced the management perspective.  For example, Bovey & Hede (2001) provide the following conceptual framework for resistance to change:
This model assumes that if a person resists a change it is because of an irrational idea in their head.  While this can be the case in many instance of resistance, it is just one type of resistance:  employee-centric view of resistance.

Oreg (2003) measures resistance to change in six ways, all a function of the change recipient (employee):
  1. reluctance to lose control,
  2. cognitive rigidity,
  3. lack of psychological resilience,
  4. intolerance to the adjustment period involved in change,
  5. preference for low levels of stimulation and novelty, and
  6. reluctance to give up old habits (p. 680).
While their conclusions are not inaccurate, they are incomplete ... they only account for a piece of the resistance to change puzzle.

Balanced Perspective

From the beginning, Paul Lawrence (1948) questioned the validity of Coch & French.  Lawrence spent some of his time in his early years working on the line at General Motors:  "When resistance does appear, it should not be thought of as something to be overcome. Instead, it can best be thought of as a useful red flag - a signal that something is going wrong" (p. 56).

In 1950, Zander, who was a close colleague of Kurt Lewin and leaned heavily on his work, offered six primary reasons for resistance to surface.
  1. If the nature of the change is not made clear to the people who are going to be influenced by the change.
  2. If the change is open to a wide variety of interpretations.
  3. If those influenced feel strong forces deterring them from changing.
  4. If the people influenced by the change have pressure put on them to make it instead of having a say in the nature or the direction of the change.
  5. If the change is made on personal grounds.
  6. If the change ignores the already established institutions in the group (cited in Dent & Goldberg, 1999, p. 33).
Organizational theorist Donald Schon was another to view resistance to change as a positive:  "Resistance to change is not only normal but in some ways even desirable" (Schon, 1963).

Several modern day organizational researchers have provided a more balanced view (Dent & Goldberg, 1999; Ford & Ford, 2009).  We'll detail their fine analysis in a later post.


In the end, both sides have validity to their arguments.  They just need to realize that their perspective is just another perspective, not some natural law of humanity.


Bovey, W.H., and Hede, A. (2001). Resistance to organizational change: The role of defense mechanisms.  Journal of Managerial Psychology, 16(7), 534-548.

Coch, L., and French, J. R. P., Jr. (1948). Overcoming resistance to change. Human Relations, 1, (4), 512-532.

Dent, E. B. & Goldberg, S. (1999). Challenging "resistance to change". The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 35(1), 25-41.

Ford, J. D., & Ford, L. W.  (2009), Resistance to change: A reexamination and extension, in R. W. Woodman, W. A. Pasmore, A. B. (Rami) Shani (Eds.), Research in Organizational Change and Development (Volume 17) (pp.211-239).  Bingley, UK:  Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Lawrence, P. R. (1954). How to deal with resistance to change. Harvard Business Review, 32(3), 49-57.

Oreg, S. (2003). Resistance to change: Developing an individual differences measure.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 680-693.

Schon, D. 1963. Champions for radical new inventions. Harvard Business Review, 41(2), 77-86.


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