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Discuss Resistance to Change in Organizations

Discuss Resistance to Change in Organizations

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.

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