Resistance to change

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Summary Not only do we need to we need to stop talking about resistance—we need to stop seeing resistance.

Change management as it is traditionally applied is outdated. We know, for example, that 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support.

Source: Changing change management, by Boris Ewenstein, Wesley Smith, and Ashvin Sologar, McKinsey & Company.
That short passage perpetuates two myths: that 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals (see here), and that resistance to change is partly to blame.

In the world of organizations, the concept of resistance to change was introduced by psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1940s and subsequently misinterpreted.

The following text is the abstract of Challenging ‘Resistance to Change’, a peer reviewed academic paper written by Eric B. Dent (Fayetteville State University; University of Maryland University College—Graduate School of Management and Technology) and Susan Galloway Goldberg (The George Washington University), and published in Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 35 No. 1, March 1999 25-41.

This article examines the origins of one of the most widely accepted mental models that drives organizational behavior: The idea that there is resistance to change and that managers must overcome it.

This mental model, held by employees at all levels, interferes with successful change implementation.

The authors trace the emergence of the term resistance to change and show how it became received truth.

Kurt Lewin introduced the term as a systems concept, as a force affecting managers and employees equally.

Because the terminology, but not the context, was carried forward, later uses increasingly cast the problem as a psychological concept, personalizing the issue as employees versus managers.

Acceptance of this model confuses an understanding of change dynamics. Letting go of the term — and the model it has come to embody — will make way for more useful models of change dynamics.

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People are not “resisting change”. They are expressing their displeasure that the change initiative or innovation endeavour is designed in such a way that it generates anti‑value for them.
What is anti-value?

In these circumstances, the anti-value that people experience arises from a loss of status, benefits, personal capability or other taken-for-granted value.

If you create anti-value for people, you must expect them to be mad at you. But don’t make them wrong, and don’t call it resistance.

I dropped “resistance” and “denial” from my org vocabulary long ago. Labels put no one in the mood to change.

Source: Toward A Better-Informed Cynicism, Marvin Weisbord’s review of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan, in strategy+business.
Read about Marvin Weisbord

People don’t resist what they have had a hand in designing, they actively work to make it happen. Resistance is what happens when you have messed up the design process; it is an outcome of a badly designed change programme. Resistance is the consequence of failure, not the cause of it.

Source: The Fractal Organization: Creating sustainable organizations with the Viable System Model, by Patrick Hoverstadt.

The more resistance to change you observe, the more likely it is that your methods suck.

Niels Pflaeging | view source
If people seem to be ‘resisting’ a change intervention, it’s an indication that you need to redesign it in such a way that it becomes irresistible. One way of accomplishing this is through Rich Co‑creation (interest declared).

When the proposed project meets the value requirements of all constituents of the enterprise ecosystem (stakeholders and beyond), the relevant people within these constituent organisations will support the project, or—at the very least—will not hinder its progress.

In order to become adept practitioners of innovation and change, not only must we stop talking about resistance—we have to stop seeing resistance.

More quotes

Assuming resistance to change, and the textbook strategies for overcoming it, does not form a useful framework for resolving change implementation issues. All of the above problems culminate in the conclusion that overcoming resistance to change is not a useful framework for dealing with issues or effectively resolving problems pertaining to change management. In addition to our evidence about the mental model, the practical experience of change suggests that this approach is not as successful as it should be. As mentioned earlier, Kotter (1995), Beer et al. (1990), and Porras and Robertson (1983) all testify to the relative ineffectiveness of this approach. Why is the title of these works “Overcoming Resistance to Change”? Based on the content, the title should be “Overcoming Perfectly Natural Reactions to Poor Management,” or “How To (and Not To) Implement Change,” or “Common Management Mistakes in Implementing Change.” Some authors caution the reader not to assume that resistance will occur, but while the idea is still framed as overcoming resistance, the self-fulfilling prophesy is almost impossible to avoid.

Source: Challenging ‘Resistance to Change’ by Eric Dent and Susan Galloway Goldberg
Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 35 No. 1, March 1999 25-41.

Further reading

70 Years of Resistance – Part 1 | Part 2 on Change Management Review

Challenging ‘Resistance to Change’ by Eric Dent and Susan Galloway Goldberg, in Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 35 No. 1, March 1999 25-41

Finding the Reason Behind the Resistance, by Karan Paige, on Change Management Review

How to deal with resistance to change, by Paul R. Lawrence, in Harvard Management Review, January 1969

Overcoming Resistance to Change (pdf), by Lester Coch and John R.P. French, Jr, in Human Relations 1948, vol. 1

This is the seminal paper on resistance to change. Coch and French were strongly influenced by the work of Kurt Lewin, as evidenced by this footnote:

Overcoming Resistance to Change, by Lester Coch and John R.P. French, Jr, Human Relations 1948, vol. 1, p. 512

The Science Behind Resistance To Change (pdf), a presentation given by Mark Jaben, MD to BC Quality and Patient Safety Council

Technology Change: Overcoming Resistance, by Alyssa Burkus, Actionable Consultants

What Causes #OrgChange to Fail? by Paul Thoresen, on Medium

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