Are Your Ideas of ‘Resistance’ Sabotaging Your Change Efforts? Too many leaders spend too much time and energy trying to manage resistance to change. Their concern about resistance is a major reason so many organisational change initiatives fail.
The reason change initiatives fall short is not because people inherently resist change. It’s because leaders erroneously believe people inherently resist change. Your expectation of resistance, and your approach to change based on this expectation, causes the very resistance that you are trying to avoid. In essence, you are creating a problem where none need exist.
Most if not all of the resistance you currently experience with organisational change can be avoided if you stop focussing on resistance — working from a Resistant Mindset — and instead adopt a Readiness Mindset.
The Fallacy of Resistance to Change
There’s a widespread belief that people are predisposed to resist change. In fact, the opposite is true — we are innately built with the capacity to change. Throughout our evolution, human beings have demonstrated the ability to adapt and respond in new ways to their environment. We have consistently demonstrated a high proclivity for change.
We live in a world of constant change. If people resisted change, change would be rare — yet it is ubiquitous.
The same is true at the organisational level. I have talked with hundreds of employees undergoing change initiatives, and not one has said they are resistant to change.
However, when you are working with a Resistant Mindset, you approach and talk about change with the expectation employees will resist it. The result is you take actions that make the situation worse instead of better, creating a cycle of toxic change.
Reaction Is Not Resistance
The fact that people don’t innately resist change doesn’t mean they won’t react to change. It also doesn’t mean every person will adopt every change you want to make in your organisation.
One problem when working with a Resistant Mindset is it tricks you into seeing and labeling normal human reactions to change as resistance. This perpetuates a toxic cycle of change. Here’s an example:
Pam is a CEO. Over the past couple of months she and her executive team have been working on a new production model the company needs to implement. They have worked through many of the details, recognised the benefits, and are excited to announce the new model to the employees.
They host a town hall meeting to announce the new production model, expecting the employees to be excited. But instead they are bombarded with questions about the model, its impact, concerns, and stories of how it was tried before and didn’t work.
Pam feels frustrated because she believes her employees resist change. She and her executive team stop answering questions and resolve to push harder to get the new model implemented. However, what she experienced wasn’t resistance to change. It was a normal response in the face of uncertainty.
The need for consistency and predictability is hardwired into every human being. Although different people may vary in their tolerance for uncertainty, it is stressful for everyone. Anything that disrupts our normal pattern and creates uncertainty raises the potential that we will perceive a threat and react.
Coupled with this need for consistency is our built-in negativity bias. This makes us more alert to potential threats (real or imagined) and less focused on potential benefits. This is why when Pam announced the new production model, her employees focused on potential risks, questioned the model, and raised concerns.
So what happened? Why did she interpret these normal reactions as resistance?
When you are working with a Resistant Mindset, you hear the questions, concerns, and anything that doesn’t support the change as negative, and use it as evidence to confirm your belief people resist change. This is a classic example of confirmation bias.
When I ask leaders about a group or person they view as resistant to change, they describe their frustration, impatience and the feeling that every change is a battle. They also describe being less willing to listen to objections or concerns and provide information. This is where communication breaks down.
A Readiness Mindset Flips the Switch
When you work with a Readiness Mindset, you believe people will move toward change when they believe it’s needed and they feel capable, prepared, and supported. You focus on building readiness for change.
Readiness represents the level of interaction and energy people need to move toward change. I define readiness for change as the willingness and ability of a person to engage in the behaviours and activities needed to adapt to a new state or environment.
The result is you interpret comments and reactions as feedback rather than resistance, and use it to guide and support people to build higher levels of readiness.
Leaders working with a Readiness Mindset approach change with a sense of curiosity, therefore they ask different questions. They expand their understanding of the human dynamics of change. When readiness is overlooked, or resistance is simply viewed as one facet of readiness, leaders may neglect important and necessary interventions needed to support and enable change.
Adopting a Readiness Mindset and approach may seem counterintuitive, and it’s not a magic bullet. Change is uncomfortable and takes time — usually more time than you think it should. However, adopting a Readiness Mindset allows you to eliminate most of the barriers that a Resistant Mindset creates. Instead of creating resistance you then have to manage, you can continually build readiness and capacity for change among your employees.
 Armenakis, A., Harris, S., & Mossholder, K. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46(6), 681.