Resistance is Futile in Organizational Transformation

By Steve Garcia, May 29th, 2012  

Virtually every text on organizational change has as a central tenet the idea of "resistance to change." The basic premise is that individuals have a predisposition to resist change and it is the work of leaders and change agents to achieve change by overcoming this resistance. Unfortunately, this concept of resistance to change has itself become a major obstacle to organizational transformation.

Kurt Lewin, the social psychology pioneer, first developed the concept of resistance to change. For Lewin, however, resistance was not specific to individuals. It was a broader, systemic phenomenon. Resistance to change could result from anything that impeded the change, including misaligned work processes, organizational structure, or rewards. Since Lewin first proposed the idea of resistance, it has been pared down to refer specifically to individuals' psychological state.

In many ways, "resistance to change" has become an excuse to ignore employees' concerns. If I can label your response as 'resistance,' then I can disregard it. The problem is not with the change I am proposing but with those who disagree with it.

This mindset is terribly unfortunate for three reasons:

When employees feel their concerns are not given consideration, it ironically creates the very resistance organizations seek to overcome. Imagine if every time you raised a concern you were told your behavior was "resistant." Most of us would get resistant pretty darn quickly.
Our decision-making suffers. Employees, particularly those who must modify how they work for the change to succeed, are often well positioned to comment on the change. They have good ideas for how to improve on it and knowledge about what might go wrong. By assuming their feedback stems from resistance and working to overcome it, we miss out on the chance to inform and improve the change.
We lose the opportunity to build employee buy-in. When we take employees' concerns and suggestions seriously and modify our plans accordingly, we generate employee ownership. People own what they co-create. As a result, they are much more likely to support the end result and change their behavior accordingly.

For these reasons, it is time to retire the concept of "resistance to change" and adopt the less combative, more positive term "response to change." This is not to suggest that organizations are democracies or that the change process should include everyone. But, while fewer is faster, it is not always better, particularly when transforming organizations.


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