Resistance To Change

By Martin Gilliard

Overcoming resistance to change can be key where innovations are concerned. 

For example a new web based software system to enable employees to book their own flights, car rentals and hotels might be seen as a threat to the travel booking department and it may be seen as additional unnecessary work that people simply don't have time for by your employees.

Such resistance to change should be anticipated early on in a project and methods put in place to help diffuse it, work around it or if you are left with no choice to simply ride straight over it.


Resistance To Change

(Photo Credit Sean MacEntee)

Possible Causes For The Resistance To Change

Before you can overcome the resistance it is wise to be aware of why the resistance exists. Usually it is a result of one of the following causes…

  • People not agreeing with or understanding the value / benefits of the innovation.
  • Fear of the unknown.
  • People have had no opportunity to provide input in the planning or implementation of the change.
  • Little or no reward / benefits to the people impacted by the idea.
  • Increased effort from people required as a result of implementing the idea.
  • Fear that the change will result in job cuts.
  • Personality clashes between the people affected by the idea and the ideas inventor.
  • No trust of the people who have been mandated to implement the change
  • Belief that the change is unnecessary or will make the situation worse
  • A belief that the idea is inferior to another idea.
  • A feeling that the change will result in a loss of security, status, money or friends.
  • Bad experiences from similar changes that had been or been attempted to be implemented in the past

Being aware of the causes mentioned above and being able to specifically identify which ones may be relevant for the particular innovation that you are implementing greatly assists your chances of overcoming the resistance to change.

Mobilize Energy and Commitment

To get everyone motivated and committed to your change you should always begin a change effort with a clearly defined business problem.

Business problem definitions should make it clear to all concerned why the change must be undertaken. They should be well thought out so as to ensure they effectively define the problem and they should be convincing enough to motivate people through a sense of urgency in the message that they convey.

You need to get people to understand that the pain and additional effort involved with implementing the change will far outweigh the future pains associated with maintaining the status quo.

Create a Shared Vision

Once you have defined the business problem you then need to start thinking about the future state. Here you need to create a clear, shared vision, which you should communicate to all to ensure they fully understand the reasons for the change.

Identify the Leaders

For change to be successful, strong leadership needs to be put in place and this must be clearly defined and communicated.

You should have someone senior to the organization to champion or sponsor the change. They should be responsible for providing the resources required to make the change a success and they should be responsible for the changes success or failure.

Create Quick / Small Wins

Try and get some momentum and motivation going by focusing on some results rather than just the activities. Does the task that you are working on actually contribute to the end result? Often many tasks that seem important in fact contribute little at all to the end result, for example training or re-structuring a team, etc.

Focus the team’s efforts on result driven activities, particularly ones that can be implemented quickly. Anything that you can do immediately to improve performance will undermine the cynics and make it difficult to block the needed change. Small result driven wins also assist with fine-tuning the vision and can turn people who were negative of the project into supporters. 

Adjust the Vision if Necessary

Changes rarely go to the exact plan that was set out for them. As new knowledge or circumstances arise be ready to adjust your vision. The key is to be flexible, adaptable and realistic at the same time. Adjust plans regularly so as to accommodate the schedules of the people on your team and the resources at hand.

resistance is futile

Resistance To Change Is Futile!

(Photo Credit John Fischer)


When overcoming resistance to change good, relevant and timely communication is essential. You may need to tailor your communications to the different stakeholders so that it better fits their unique perspectives of the change you are trying to implement. Try to make your communications energizing and inspiring. In particular you will need to tell them…

  • Why you are undertaking the change. What business problem, issue or reason are you trying to rectify? What were the available solutions? Why did you arrive at the current solution?
  • What your plans are. When do you expect to have the change implemented? What do you hope to achieve by its implementation (quote metrics / actual numerical targets if possible)? Explain how the implementation of the change will benefit the group or individual that you are communicating to.
  • Be clear on the scope of the change. What’s in scope, what is out of scope? Who is affected, who isn’t? Use facts and figures where possible to help try and eliminate any upfront fear, uncertainty or reservations. Explain what will change and what wont.
  • Be as honest and as up front about the change as you can. Don’t delay the communication of bad news.
  • Communicate the risks that you have identified and what your plans are to mitigate those risks
  • Communicate the rewards of success. How will people be incentivized for the additional work that will be required to lead to the success?

Create a communication plan that utilizes a diverse set of communication styles. Consider stand up presentations, group meetings, email, blogs, wikis, newsletters, hosted events, web sites, etc. Your goal is to get the change program across and understood by all the stakeholders so the more communication styles you can use then the better.

Don't make the mistake of only giving out in communications. Remember communication is a two way process and therefore you should also listen and provide answers. If people aren't asking questions then ask them how they are doing and how they think the change will impact them.

Lessons I Have Learned

As an IT manager I have spent most of my working career implementing systems that result in change to a number of people and as a result one of the best lessons I have ever learned towards diffusing the resistance to change and making the change more acceptable is to attempt to get your core users involved in the project from the very offset. By that I mean make them feel that the project is their’s. Involve them with the design; ask them how things could be improved and generally make them feel part of the project.

Obviously this cannot always be done and if that is the case and your project has one or more resistors then you first need to identify who the resistors are.

Second you need to determine the cause of the resistance to change and then you need to try and gain a deep understanding of why that individual has adopted this position. Try and imagine yourself in their shoes. What do they currently value about the status quo? Can you present the benefits of your idea to the resistor in ways that will promote/strengthen their existing values?

Key to all this is not to over sell your case and end up in an argument the last thing you want is to further your disagreements with the individuals involved as this can end up simply increasing the resistance to change. 

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