What Is Resistance to Change?

Definition & Examples of Resistance to Change

Office manager addressing his team during morning meeting

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Resistance to change is the act of opposing or struggling with modifications or transformations that alter the status quo. This resistance can manifest itself in one employee, or in the workplace as a whole.

Learn what causes resistance to change and how you can reduce it.

What Is Resistance to Change?

Resistance to change is the unwillingness to adapt to altered circumstances. It can be covert or overt, organized, or individual. Employees may realize they don't like or want a change and resist publicly, and that can be very disruptive.

Employees can also feel uncomfortable with the changes introduced and resist, sometimes unknowingly, through their actions, their language, and in the stories and conversations, they share in the workplace.

In a worst-case scenario, employees can be forceful in their refusal to adopt any changes, bringing confrontation and conflict to your organization.

How Resistance to Change Works

Resistance to change is evident in actions such as:

  • Criticism
  • Nitpicking
  • Snide comments or sarcastic remarks
  • Missed meetings
  • Failed commitments
  • Endless arguments
  • Sabotage

When employees are poorly introduced to changes that affect how they work, especially when they don't see the need for the changes, they may be resistant. They may also experience resistance when they haven't been involved in the decision-making process.

Resistance to change can intensify if employees feel they have been involved in a series of changes that have had insufficient support to gain the anticipated results. They also become weary when changes happen too frequently, becoming a flavor-of-the-month instead of strategic action.

Whatever causes the resistance to change can be a big threat to the success of your business and can affect the speed at which your organization adopts an innovation. It affects the feelings and opinions of employees at all stages of the adoption process. Employee resistance also affects productivity, quality, interpersonal communication, employee commitment to contribute, and the relationships in your workplace.

Spotting Resistance

Note whether employees are missing meetings related to the change. Late assignments, forgotten commitments, and absenteeism can all be signs of resistance to change.

Some employees will publicly challenge the change, its purpose, or how it is unfolding. An employee who has a higher position and more seniority may be more resolute in their resistance. Less well-positioned employees may resist collectively in ways such as a work slowdown, staying home from work, deliberately misunderstanding directions, and, in rarer cases, organizing to bring in a labor union.

Employees also resist change by failing to take action to move in the new direction, quietly going about their familiar and accustomed business in the same ways as always, withdrawing their interest and attention, and failing to add to conversations, discussions, and requests for input. 

Covert resistance to change can damage the progress of your desired changes seriously as it is more difficult to deal with the resistance that isn't visible, demonstrated, or expressed publicly.

Minimizing Employee Resistance to Change

Managing resistance to change can be a challenge. Be mindful that you aren't the reason behind the resistance. You can cause serious resistance when you repeatedly introduce change to your organization.

Organizations are constantly evolving, which means change is inevitable. But introducing changes without consulting the people they affect, explaining the need for change, and providing support through the process will alienate your employees and drag down morale.

Something as simple as listening to how employees talk about the change in meetings and hall conversations can tell you a lot about any resistance they are experiencing. Some employees may come directly to you for help navigating the changes. That's a great opportunity to listen to their concerns.

When employees believe their input is considered, they are less likely to experience resistance to change. Smart employers recognize this and collect input before employees are asked to make any changes.

In an organization that has a culture of trust, transparent communication, employee involvement and engagement, and positive interpersonal relationships, resistance to change is easy to see—and also much less likely to occur.

In such a work environment, employees feel free to tell their boss what they think and have open exchanges with managers about how they think the changes are going. They are also more likely to share their feelings and ideas for improvement.

In a trusting environment, employees think about how to make the change process go more smoothly. They are likely to ask their managers what they can do to help.

When a change is introduced in this environment, with a lot of discussions and employee involvement, resistance to change is minimized. Resistance is also minimized if there is a widespread belief that the changes are needed and will have a positive effect. It helps to present your reasoning for why a change is necessary instead of withholding that information. Taking employee feedback into account can help improve the chances of success for your change.

Key Takeaways

  • Resistance to change is the opposition to altered circumstances or modification of the status quo.
  • Employees may resist change when they haven't been briefed on the reasons for the change or the thinking behind the decision-making.
  • Listening to employee concerns and ideas will help reduce resistance to change.