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12 Uniersity o Auckland Business Reiew | Vol13 No1 2011

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hose who lead and manage organisational change
oten deal with what they term employee resistance`.
1his is usually portrayed as negatie behaiour which
undermines the eectieness o the change. 1he conentional
wisdom is that resistance must be oercome` and many
books and magazine articles teach managers how to do this.
loweer, there are a number o misconceptions about what
resistance to change is, who resists it and why, what it means
to the organisation and why and how it should be managed.
1his article examines these issues and proides eidence
rom research studies, the media and personal experience
o common perceptions about the nature o resistance to
organisational change. Managers need a richer understanding
o the phenomenon so that its alue can be appreciated and its
negatie eects minimised.
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In an engineering magazine article one writer labels resistance
to change a brickwall` and a dangerous roadblock to
transormation`
1
, while a computer magazine contributor calls
it one o the nastiest, most debilitating workplace cancers.
there isn`t a more potent, paradoxical or equal-opportunity
killer o progress and good intentions.`
2
Resistance is thus iewed as a destructie orce that runs
counter to the interests o the organisation. loweer, in
many cases the more pressing issue is that managers become
rustrated when their own goals are not being achieed. 1hey
blame this on stubborn and recalcitrant employees who are
unwilling to accept the ineitability and irreutable logic o
the impending deelopment. Resistance is requently seen as
a orm o reusal to do what is required or as eidence o a
hal-hearted eort.
A closer analysis o resistance reeals a more complex process
inoling a number o common assumptions ,points, and
alternatie interpretations ,counterpoints,.
Poivt: Re.i.tavce i. covtrar, to orgavi.atiovat ivtere.t..
Counterpoint: 1here will be cases where employee resistance
undermines the change, but it may preent the organisation
rom making costly mistakes. Change may inole some risk
and change leaders, whose reputations and careers could be on
the line, oten hae either miscalculated the bene!ts or risks
or hae unconsciously maximised the ormer and minimised
the latter. Seeral years ago the Auckland Uniersity o
1echnology came close to merging with Unitec. Opposition
rom arious stakeholders caused a rethink among AU1`s
senior management ,some o whom were also opposed
to the merger, and it was canned. It was strongly belieed
that as a new uniersity AU1 would suer i it were linked to
a polytechnic with dierent resources, reputation and history.
Poivt: Re.i.tavce i. ae.trvctire ava .et!.b bebariovr tbat ivrotre.
refv.at, .vbrer.iov or .abotage.
Counterpoint: \hile sta may take negatie legal and illegal,
ethical and unethical action, many may instead raise questions,
complain or engage in other orms o debate that highlight
the dangers o the proposed change. Disquiet, reluctance or
dissent do not equate with reusal or more extreme responses.
1hey may simply be re"ecting doubt or anxiety or the need
or more inormation and time to think. Or, they may in act
Lngaging with Resistance
to Change
Roy Smollan takes a resh look at what resistance is, who resists, why they do so and
how organisations can better handle opposition to change.
Roy Smollan i. a evior ectvrer
iv Mavagevevt at .vc/tava
|virer.it, of 1ecbvotog ,. i.
re.earcb ivtere.t. focv. ov
orgavi.atiovat cbavge.
1bi. articte i. ba.ea ov tbe avtbor`.
orv cov.vttivg ava etev.ire
!etaba.ea ivterrier. ritb tbo.e
vavagivg orgavi.atiovat cbavge iv
^er Zeatava.
13 Uniersity o Auckland Business Reiew | Vol13 No1 2011
be taking the moral highground, arguing or principles and
alues that supposedly underpin an organisation`s traditions
and culture, or example: \e say the customer comes !rst,
but this change underalues our customers.` A number o
managers I interiewed in a recent research study reported that
although they argued against speci!c change in management
meetings it was not thought proessional to reeal this to sta
at lower leels. As one put it: In a business you can`t hae
rogue senior managers. 1hey should leae. I you`re a senior
manager you absolutely need to support the business, that`s
what you are paid or.` 1hus his resistance took two orms.
le had initially argued in the executie meetings against
the restructuring o his company and later negotiated his
exit. Other managers I spoke to also oiced their opinions
in management meetings but then some complied with the
agreed direction while others let.
Poivt: Re.i.tavce i. cov.ciov. ava aetiberate actiov.
Counterpoint: Resistance may occur on cognitie ,thought,,
aectie ,emotion, and behaioural ,action, leels. Lmployees
may think that a change is unnecessary or harmul or doubt
that it could be successul. 1hey may experience negatie
emotions such as anxiety, rustration or anger because the
outcomes o change may disadantage themseles, or others,
or the organisation itsel. Oten there is an unconscious or
semiconscious sense o reluctance or denial that translates
into inertia. Perceptions and eelings are seldom recognised
as resistance because they do not always lead to negatie
behaiour. loweer, while they may not trigger oert
resistance they hae a corrosie aect on the commitment to
change o employees, who may respond with apathy or mere
compliance, rather than with the engagement that change
leaders are hoping or. Seeral people I interiewed remarked
that they elt disempowered`, disenranchised` and
disengaged` and eentually let their organisations. Others
retreated to a state o cynicism where the pronouncements o
more senior management were treated with scorn or disbelie.
One claimed: I`e neer known a change process that added
something, it is always taking away and it`s always pitched
positiely and people always know that`s a crock.`
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Resistance to change is usually attributed to workers` who
reuse to carry out the legitimate instructions o their bosses.
Some academics hae treated organisational change as a site
where the power o the worker ,at times in collectie action, is
oertly used to negate the power o the owners or managers.
Others note the more coert means o workers asserting their
rights or demonstrating their displeasure with change.
Poivt: !or/er. re.i.t cbavge reqvirea b, vavager..
Counterpoint: All stakeholders may resist change. Managers
at all leels ,een executies, may resist change that the board
wants or that their colleagues approe o. 1he collapse o
the merger talks between AU1 and Unitec was anecdotally
ascribed in arious conersations to the opposition o senior
management and proessors. One o the people I interiewed
in my research was the general manager o an organisation
that was taken oer. \hen she queried certain aspects o
the changes that were introduced she was substantially
undermined and marginalised by the new owners and
directors. Another interiewee was a human resources
manager tasked with implementing a rat o changes as a
proessional serices !rm moed rom a partnership to
a more corporate model. Some o the most ocal resisters were
the partners. \hat is seldom recognised is that change may be
proposed by employees but resisted by their bosses or more
senior managers. Change is also oten resisted by external
stakeholders, such as Goernment, suppliers, customers
and community groups. lor example, the sale o Auckland
International Airport to oerseas inestors was stymied by
the Goernment, the corporatisation o lonterra has been
opposed by most o its member-armers and the creation o
the Auckland Supercity` was criticised by many groups and
indiiduals.
Poivt: Peote re.i.t orgavi.atiovat cbavge ave to .et!.bve...
Counterpoint: Although this is a alid point, it is only natural
that people resist change where they beliee they will lose
- particularly when they anticipate or experience poorer
working conditions, lower remuneration, ewer priileges,
lower status, a loss o identity and een the loss o their jobs.
In addition, people are not only concerned or themseles.
Altruism oten runs deep and the plight o those who lose in
organisational change can eoke empathy and support. 1his
may be seen as orms o resistance, particularly when action
is taken on their behal. One o my respondents remarked:
I had some empathy or some o my team mates` and the
anger experienced is probably more attributed to the lack
o concern... being shown to some other members o the
sta.` Additionally, it may be elt that change, or the way it
is implemented, is not appropriate or the organisation. One
interiewee said, in relation to the major restructuring his
manuacturing !rm went through: 1hings were taken too
ar. 1oo many people were taken out. 1oo many mistakes were
made.`
Poivt: Peote re.i.t orgavi.atiovat cbavge tbrovgb igvoravce.
Counterpoint: Again, there may be a measure o truth in
this. loweer, it is not necessarily ignorance that dries
resistance, it may be a dierent interpretation o eents
and issues, or a lack o trust in management to delier air
and aourable outcomes. In a recent New Zealand study
o change in the health sector
3
, two separate proessional
groups were ound to be guided in their reaction to new
initiaties by dierent sub-cultural imperaties. 1his was
construed by some o those inoled as resistance. Accusing
employees o ignorance can be a managerial attempt to
stigmatise employee opposition. I hae sat in meetings in
arious organisations where managers lamented the act that
employees simply didn`t get it` or got it too slowly. One
commentator on change reers to the marathon eect`
4

- rontrunners in city marathons are oten well down the road
when others hae not yet begun.
Poivt: Peote re.i.t att cbavge.
Counterpoint: A lortune magazine writer claimed that
All change creates winners and losers in an organization
and the caeman part o our brains is still wired to deend
against loss.So people almost always resist change.`
5
1his is
an exaggeration - employees do not always lose in a change.
Indeed, working conditions, remuneration and status may all
improe. Many o those I interiewed welcomed the changes
14 Uniersity o Auckland Business Reiew | Vol13 No1 2011
they experienced, partly because o personal gains made ,at
nobody`s expense, and partly because the changes led to
increased organisational eectieness. \hat should also be
acknowledged is that employees may welcome some aspects
o a change but resent others. One manager I interiewed
moed to a new site and a new role when his company was
taken oer. le appreciated a more constructie organisational
culture but disliked certain tasks and the shabby o!ce he was
allocated. Similarly, people may resist unaourable outcomes
but beliee that decision-making processes were air, or resent
unair processes een though outcomes may be aourable.
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\hile resistance may not be ineitable, as some hae suggested,
it may be anticipated and, to some degree, managed` beore
or when it is maniested. Just oer 30 years ago the arrara
v.ive.. Rerier published an article by Kotter and Schlesinger
6

entitled Choosing strategies or change`. 1he subtitle noted
the importance o using appropriate methods to oercome`
resistance, although elsewhere the authors used more neutral
terms such as deal with` or orestall`. 1he article has been
quoted in most textbooks on management, organisational
behaiour and organisational change, and thereore many
people attending academic and training courses hae become
amiliar with their recommended approaches. 1he six
strategies they proposed were education and communication,
participation and inolement, acilitation and support,
negotiation and agreement, manipulation and co-optation,
and coercion. 1hey adised that each o the strategies has
its adantages and disadantages and that situational actors
need to be taken into account. 1heir adice is sound although
their options may be too limited.
\hat ollows, thereore, is not a recipe or success, gien the
contextual nature o each type o change and the diering
personalities, abilities, experience, perceptions and eelings o
the arious stakeholders. Rather it is a set o guidelines that
managers need to re"ect on.
Assess the potential impact o change on arious
stakeholders - indiiduals, groups, departments and
organisations. 1o acilitate this, whereer possible
discuss the proposed change with the stakeholders and
engage their iews. Participation might produce better
decisions and the process o inclusion itsel sends a
welcome message to those aected and enhances the
prospect o greater commitment. Opposition may turn
into collaboration or compromise.
Understand that there might be winners and losers and
that people naturally deend against loss, not against
change itsel. 1ogether with aected stakeholders try to
work out how to either minimise the losses or compensate
people or them.
Note that people react ,and resist, on cognitie, emotional
and behaioural leels and that these reactions are not
always aligned.
landle resistance with care. Do not assume that it is wilul
or ignorant. Do not equate doubt, dissent, disagreement
and alternatie proposals with reusal, disobedience and
disloyalty. Understand that resistance may be conscious,
semiconscious or unconscious and that behaioural
resistance may be oert or coert.
Consider resistance as an orange light, not a barricade to
be stormed. 1he management proposal or action may not
hae been thought through well enough and alternaties
may be more appropriate.
Beore choosing strategies to deal with resistance,
consider their rami!cations and, in particular, the
power o other parties to undermine the eectieness o
the change or to derail it altogether. \ill participation
simply waste aluable time while problems grow or
opportunities wither \ill coercion or manipulation get
the job done but alienate the sta in the process, leading
to more subtle orms o resistance low helpul - and
costly - will emotional and tangible support be
\heneer possible aim or just processes and outcomes
and underline them with regular, ull and honest
communication. Laying people o by email or text
message - which has been done - exacerbates resistance
to change.
In conclusion, resistance is not the scourge it is oten made out
to be. In dissecting the steep decline o one insurance giant,
ortvve journalists reported that: Change was embraced at
AIG, but not dissent. Larly on |CLO| Greenberg dismissed
internal resistance to his innoations as the little thoughts
that little men hae.``1 \hile the problems experienced by
the company could not be attributed entirely to the CLO`s
legendary arrogance, it does highlight the need or managers
to engage with opposition to change in more productie ways.
A number o academics hae called or the term resistance
to change` to be retired, partly because it is misunderstood
and partly because it is an assumption that penetrates - and
tends to dominate - talk about change. 1his may be wishul
thinking but managers o change do need to iew resistance
in a dierent light.
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1. Burge, R. ,2008,. Ready, set, change: low to reduce
resistance to Six Sigma projects. vav.triat vgiveer, October,
35-39
2. loote, N. ,2001,. 1he utility o resistance ,to change,.
Covvterrorta, 35,3,, 36.
3. Brunton, M. & Matheny, J. ,2009,. Diergent acceptance
o change in a public health organization. ]ovrvat of
Orgaviatiovat Cbavge Mavagevevt, 22,9,, 600-619.
4. Bridges, \. ,2003,. Mavagivg trav.itiov.: Ma/ivg tbe vo.t of
cbavge ,2nd ed,. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.
5. Colin, G. ,2006,. Managing in chaos. ortvve, October
2: 34-40.
6. Kotter, J. A. & Schlesinger, L. A. ,199,. Choosing
strategies or change. arrara v.ive.. Rerier, 5,2,, 106-114.
. Bandler, J., Boyd, R. & Burke, D. ,2008,. lank`s last
stand. ortvve, October 13, 42-55.
15 Uniersity o Auckland Business Reiew | Vol13 No1 2011
89($")( ()#.&*-
Bridges, W. (2003). Mavagivg trav.itiov.: Ma/ivg tbe vo.t of
cbavge (2nd ed). Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.
Dent, E. B. & Goldberg, S. (1999). Challenging resistance to
change. ]ovrvat of .tiea ebariorat cievce, 35(1), 25-41.
Dent, E. B. & Powley, E. H. (2003). Employees actually
embrace change: The chimera of resistance. ]ovrvat of .tiea
Mavagevevt ava vtrerevevr.bi, 8(10), 40-56.
Ford, J. D. & Ford, L. W. (2009). Decoding resistance to change:
Strong leaders can hear and learn from their critics. arrara
v.ive.. Rerier, 87(4), 99-103
Piderit, S. K. (2000). Rethinking resistance and recognizing
ambivalence: a multi-dimensional view of attitudes towards
organizational change. .caaev, of Mavagevevt Rerier, 25(4),
783-794.
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