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Resistance to Positive Change: Understanding Why People Don't Like It When You Try to Change


While positive change often aims to improve processes, procedures, or outcomes, initiating change frequently faces resistance from those it impacts. Understanding why people react negatively to change, even when the intentions behind it seem well-meaning, is crucial for leaders seeking change.


Today we will explore the reasons for resistance to change through a research lens, then apply practical strategies leaders can employ when navigating organizational transformations.


Uncertainty and the Fear of the Unknown


A core driver of resistance stems from the inherent uncertainty change creates (Oreg et al., 2011). People naturally prefer stability and knowing what to expect. Change, by its very nature, upends established routines and ways of working, creating ambiguity about what will replace the familiar (McKay et al., 2013). This uncertainty taps into primal human instincts that perceive the unknown as threatening (Damasio, 1996). Even positive change intended to improve outcomes still represents an unknown state people have not experienced before. Leaders can help assuage such fears by:


  • Providing clarity on why the change is necessary and how it will benefit individuals

  • Being transparent about the change process and timelines involved

  • Offering training and resources to support adapting to new processes

  • Actively addressing questions and concerns as the change rolls out


For example, when a hospital system implemented an electronic health records system, they held information sessions to explain how the technology would streamline documentation while still allowing focus on patient care. Staff felt less threatened knowing leaders valued their input and time was allotted to learn the new system.


Disruption to Established Routines


Closely tied to uncertainty is people's aversion to disruption of routines they have formed (Erwin & Garman, 2010). Humans gravitate toward habits and established patterns as they provide mental efficiency and predictability important for coping with daily demands (Wood & Neal, 2009). Positive change challenges existing ways of doing things that have become automatic. This can create unease even if the old routines were far from ideal or efficient (Jurasaite-Harbison & Rex, 2010). Leaders must acknowledge routine-related stress change causes and provide:


  • Transition support as new processes are adopted

  • Grace periods that don't penalize learning curves

  • Opportunity for input on how duties may evolve constructively


A school district that switched to blended learning recognized the switch required rethinking lesson planning. Teachers provided feedback that influenced resources and pacing of the model's rollout, feeling more empowered in the change.


Threats to Self-Interest


On an even deeper level, people may resist change threatening their self-interests, status, or well-being (Piderit, 2000). Positive organizational changes sometimes necessitate restructuring roles or redefining responsibilities in ways that activate perceptions of risks:


  • To job security if positions or departments are altered

  • Of reduced influence or authority as new reporting lines form

  • Of skill obsolescence if different abilities are prioritized


Leaders must acknowledge how changes may unsettle people and reassure stability where possible through:


  • Fair treatment of all employees regardless of change impacts

  • Transparent communication addressing hopes as well as fears

  • Training and talent development minimizing disruption to careers


A company transitioning roles demonstrated commitment to staff by avoiding layoffs, reallocating teams, and funding reskilling. Employees felt secure changes aimed for future success, not someone's gain at another's cost.


Doubts About Executing Success


Additional reluctance arises from doubts people hold about successfully implementing change (Weiner, 2009). Positive intentions do not guarantee smooth adoption or that new approaches will yield better outcomes (Piderit, 2000). When facing major alterations to strategy, process or policy, it is natural for some to question:


  • If transitions can be competently managed at a large scale

  • If proper resources and follow through will be provided

  • If new systems will function as proposed or cause unforeseen issues


To ease these concerns, leaders must exude confidence while also:


  • Obtaining objective feedback to strengthen change management

  • Addressing pilot programs to prove new approaches in action

  • Communicating challenges forthrightly and celebrating early successes


A healthcare network eased upgrade doubts by pilots testing a new patient portal. Doctors provided input that improved interfaces before widespread deployment, feeling innovations were viable before mandatory adoption.


Loss of Control and Autonomy


Resistance also arises from perceptions that change diminishes personal control or autonomy (Wanberg & Banas, 2000). Positive transformations still represent external forces altering familiar work environments and ways individuals have shaped their roles. This activates innate human desires for self-determination in one's domain (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Leaders must recognize change inherently imposes some loss of control and counter this by:


  • Involving impacted employees in change design where possible

  • Respecting personality differences in openness-to-change

  • Maintaining policy input channels even after transitions complete


A university welcoming blended learning flexibility still gathered faculty feedback defining parameters. While changes proceeded, teachers felt perspectives helped shape a model empowering creative work within new structures.


Unfair Treatment of Some Stakeholders


Finally, resistance emerges when changes are perceived as unfairly favoring or penalizing certain stakeholders over others (Thomas & Ganster, 1995). Even alterations with good motives still risk activating perceptions of inequity that damage commitment to transformations. Leaders can preempt such concerns by:


  • Assessing how changes distribute costs, work impacts across roles

  • Weighing options enabling all stakeholders to benefit in some way

  • Communicating recognition that no single group holds complete needs


A school system transitioning grade configurations avoided community backlash by compromising - splitting elementary programs over two nearby existing buildings balanced access against costs of new facilities. All parties felt some validation of priorities in an overall positive solution.


Practical Application


Understanding why well-meaning change meets reluctance provides opportunity to constructively address resistance. Key leadership strategies involve:


  • Explaining relevance of changes through open communication

  • Involving impacted individuals wherever feasibility allows

  • Building trust in change management competence and follow through

  • Recognizing and addressing potential disruptions or threats

  • Providing support for transitions smoothing adoption

  • Respecting that positive change still represents loss of familiarity


For example, when initiating technology upgrades, healthcare C-Suites first survey staff impact, then pilot programs proving benefits while gathering design input. Trainers are allotted to help during slow rollouts, with leaders addressing concerns transparently. While changes aim to optimize, respecting how they challenge established patterns builds commitment to success.


Similarly, in education a principal seeking blended models first runs pilot classes co-designed with teachers. Early-adopter volunteers then coach peers through gradual scale-up. Flexibility is given to balance innovative practices with respecting teacher autonomy. By proactively addressing reluctance sources, transformations for students can still gain staff support.


In each industry, leadership that first understands reluctance enables building commitment to positive changes meant for all. With open communication and stakeholder involvement, alterations seeking improved outcomes can smoothly integrate into redefined yet stable working cultures.


Conclusion


While well-intentioned change aims to better organizations, transforming environments will inevitably face reluctance from those it impacts. However, recognizing reluctance stems from basic human tendencies towards stability, control, self-interest and perceptions of unfairness provides opportunity. Leadership approaches addressing uncertainty, disruption concerns, doubts and threats head-on build understanding that alterations ultimately value all parties. With involvement and support navigating transitions, positive transformations seeking improved outcomes can proceed in a collaborative manner respected by all. Overall, recognizing reluctance sources enables change management strengthening commitment to shared visions of future success.


References


  • Damasio, A. R. (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 351(1346), 1413–1420. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1996.0125

  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Plenum.

  • Erwin, D., & Garman, A. N. (2010). Resistance to Organizational Change: Linking Research and Practice. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 31(1), 39–56. https://doi.org/10.1108/01437731011010371

  • Jurasaite-Harbison, E., & Rex, L. A. (2010). School cultures as contexts for informal teacher learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(2), 267–277. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2009.03.012

  • McKay, K., Kuntz, J. R., & Näswall, K. (2013). The Effect of Affective Commitment, Communication and Participation on Resistance to Change: The Role of Change Readiness. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 42(2).

  • Oreg, S., Vakola, M., & Armenakis, A. (2011). Change recipients’ reactions to organizational change: A 60-year review of quantitative studies. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(4), 461–524. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886310396550

  • Piderit, S. K. (2000). Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: A multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change. Academy of Management Review, 25(4), 783–794. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMR.2000.3707722

  • Thomas, K. W., & Ganster, D. C. (1995). Impact of family-supportive work variables on work-family conflict and strain: A control perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 80(1), 6–15. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.80.1.6

  • Wanberg, C. R., & Banas, J. T. (2000). Predictors and outcomes of openness to changes in a reorganizing workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(1), 132–142. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.85.1.132

  • Weiner, B. J. (2009). A theory of organizational readiness for change. Implementation Science, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-4-67

  • Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2009). The habitual consumer. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19(4), 579–592. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2009.08.003

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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