Change is most frequently described as a necessary response to one or more
of a potentially endless list of drivers. These are technological developments, mergers and
acquisitions, increasing competitiveness in the organization´s target markets, achieving or
maintaining growth, economic conditions, legislative or regulatory changes, globalisation,
customer pressure or strategic realignment (Firoozmand, 2014). According to Barnett and
Carroll (1995, pp. 217), organizational change can be usefully conceptualized in terms of
process, that refers to how change occurs, and its content, describing what actually changes
in the organization. Changes can be large or small, evolutionary or revolutionary, sought after
or resisted (Hayes, 2010). Hayes (2010) described the generic process model of change that
incorporates many of the features of other process models (e.g. Lewin´s three stage model and
its modification by Lippet et al, 1958, Egan 1996 and Beckhard and Harris, 1987, all cited
in Hayes, 2010). It provides a conceptual framework for thinking about the management of
change. The model is illustrated in Exhibit 1. It can be observed that people issues need to be
attended to throughout the whole change process for both, incremental as well as
transformational change (Hayes, 2010). With respect to the topic of this paper, resistance to
change, that is highly connected with people; further text will focus mainly on the “Managing
the people issues” step that stretches over the whole process of change.
Exhibit 1: Generic process model of change
Recognize need and start change
Diagnosis (review present state, identify future state)
Plan and prepare to change
Implement the change
Sustain the change
Managing people issues
Review External change
Problems and opportunities
Source: Adopted from Hayes (2010, pp. 14)
Resistance to Change in Organizations
What is resistance to change? Resistance is a natural part of the change and is to be
expected (Coghlan, 1993; Bovey & Hede, 2001). Resistance to change is by itself neither
good nor bad (Lawrence, 1954, 1969). It is a socially constructed phenomenon that is
generated and defined through interaction of all parties in the change (Van Dijk & Van Dick,
2009). A common point is that resistance to change is seen as an important reason for change
process failures (Armenakis et al., 1993). Lawrence (1954, 1969) stated that resistance is
always an important signal calling for further inquiry by management. Wiersema and Bantel
(1992) argued that there is a correlation between age and resistance; as people age, flexibility
decreases and resistance to change increases.
Pardo del Val and Fuentes (2003) and Bouckenooghe (2010) reviewed the literature
on attitudes towards change and extracted various definitions of resistance. The Macmillan
English Dictionary (2002, pp. 1205) offers several definitions of resistance, one of which is:
“The refusal to accept something new such as plan, idea or change.” Published literature
on resistance to organizational change has focused more on organizational issues rather than
on individual psychological factors (Bovey & Hede, 2001). Resistance to change is
an important topic in change management and should be seriously considered to help
the organization to achieve the advantages of the transformation (Pardo del Val and
Fuentes, 2003). Brower and Abolafia (1995) stated that the study of resistance
in organizations has been dominated by two perspectives, managerial and bureaucratic. From
a managerial perspective, resistance is dysfunction that managers learn to “cope with” and
most radical perspectives see resistance as a weapon in the class struggle. Bureaucratic
resistance, on the contrary, is a common and varied mode of organizational behaviour and
often enacted to support the goals of organization (Brower and Abolafia, 1995). Lewin (1947)
argued that through a force field comprising a balance of forces pushing for and resisting
change, any level of behaviour is maintained in a condition of quasi stationary equilibrium.
Such level of level of behaviour can be transformed by either adding forces for change in the
desired direction or by reducing the resisting forces. Lewin pointed out that approaches
focusing on the removal of restraining forces within the individual, group or organization are
likely to result in a more permanent change compared to approaches involving the application
of outside pressure for change.
Kotter (1996) identified eight errors common to organizational change efforts and
stated that making any of them can have serious consequences (see Exhibit 2). Kotter pointed
out that with awareness and skills, these errors can be avoided or greatly mitigated. The key is
to understand why organizations resist needed change, what is the multistage process that can
overcome inertia and how leadership should be used (Kotter, 1996).
Exhibit 2: Eight errors common to organizational change efforts and their consequences
• Allowing too much complacency
• Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
• Underestimating the power of vision
• Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of 10
• Permitting obstacles to block the new vision
• Failing to create short-term wins
• Declaring victory too soon
• Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture
• New strategies aren´t implemented well
• Acquisitions don´t achieve expected synergies
• Reengineering takes too long and costs too much
• Downsizing doesn´t get costs under control
• Quality programs don´t deliver hoped-for results
Source: Adopted from Kotter (1996; Chapter 1)
Kotter and Schlesinger (1979) identified four main reasons why people resist change.
1. Parochial self-interest: People think that they will lose something of value as a result.
2. Misunderstanding and lack of trust: People do not understand the implications of change and perceive that it might cost them more than they will gain.
3. Different assessments: People assess the situation differently from their managers or change initiators and see more costs than benefits resulting from the change, not only
on an individual, but also on a company level.
4. Low tolerance for change: People fear that they will not be able to develop the new skills and behaviour that will be required of them.
Assessing which of the possibilities might apply to those affected by change is
important as it can help manager select an appropriate way to overcome resistance (Kotter and
Schlesinger, 1979). Bovey and Hede (2001) conducted a study where they investigated
the role of defence mechanism, both adaptive and maladaptive, in individual resistance.
The results indicated a positive correlation with behavioural intention to resist change for five
maladaptive defence mechanisms, and a negative correlation for adaptive ones. Each of these
defences is described in Exhibit 3.
Exhibit 3: Description of defence mechanism
Defence mechanism Description
Humour (adaptive) An individual deals with internal/external stressors by emphasising amusing and ironic aspects.
Anticipation (adaptive) An individual deals with internal/external stressors by experiencing or anticipating consequences and emotional reactions in advance and considering realistic alternative responses or solutions.
Denial (maladaptive) An individual deals with internal/external stressors by refusing to acknowledge some painful aspects of external reality or subjective experience that is apparent to others.
Dissociation (maladaptive) An individual deals with internal/external stressors with a breakdown in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, perception of self or the environment.
Isolation of affect (maladaptive) An individual deals with internal/external stressors by separating ideas from the feelings originally associated with them. The individual loses touch with the feelings associated with a given idea while remaining aware of the cognitive elements.
Projection (maladaptive) An individual deals with internal/external stressors by falsely attributing to another their own unacceptable feelings, impulses, or thoughts.
Acting out (maladaptive) An individual deals with internal/external stressors by actions rather than reflections or feelings and includes transference which is the reaction in present relationships of experiences from earlier childhood relationships.
Source: Adapted from American Psychiatric Association (1994, pp. 755-7; as cited in Bovey & Hede, 2001, pp. 537)
Bovey and Hede (2001) identified two intervention strategies that can be applied by
management during periods of change in organizations in order to address the effects of
defence mechanism on resistance. They further argued that once individuals demonstrate
symptoms of resistance, it is important to differentiate between the symptoms of resistance
and the causes behind it. In a performed study, Bovey and Hede (2001) aimed to identify,
measure and evaluate some of the unconscious motivations associated with an individual´s
level of resistance to organizational change (see Exhibit 4). They argued that behavioural
intention to resist is derived to measure an individual´s intentions to engage in either
supportive or resistant behaviour towards organizational change (Bovey & Hede, 2001,
pp.537). Management and leaders need to be aware of the ways that personal issues may
impact on an employee´s thoughts, feelings and behaviour once implementing change (Bovey
& Hede, 2001). Kotter and Schlesinger (1979) argued that when implementing change, it is
important to diagnose human resistance. They further stressed that it is necessary to
understand the individual in order to diagnose the true cause of the resistance. Bovey and
Hede (2001) argued that once the benefits of working with the human dimension are
understood and accepted, management is to be more inclined to develop, promote and
implement appropriate intervention strategies. In order to assist management to work
with individual resistance, Bovey and Hede (2001, pp. 545) proposed two types of
intervention strategies. First, information-based interventions provide the individual with
information to create awareness and understanding of unconscious processes and how these
influence an individual´s motivations and behaviours in changing environment. Second,
counselling interventions focus on activities designed to assist individuals to analyse, interpret
and understand how their own defence mechanisms influence their perceptions and
motivations towards change. Ideally, counselling interventions support information-based
interventions (Bovey & Hede, 2001). Lawrence (1954, 1969) argued that the key to
the problem of resistance to change is to understand the true nature of resistance. Employees
usually resist social change, the change of their human relationships, rather than technical
change. Companies should use a range of tactics in conjunction to engage their employees as
early as possible and base their tactics on the type of transformation they are planning and
the methods to which company employees will respond best (Meaney and Pung, 2008).
Morrison and Milliken (2000) argued that organizational silence results as a critical barrier to
organizational change and developments, as well as a significant demoralizing force.