Dealing with resistance to change

The 5 keys


Dealing with resistance to change involves looking deeply at the sources and causes of resistance.

To a very large extent, resistance to change is the default setting for adult behaviour, and frequently the level of resistance increases in direct proportion to life and work experience – and for very good reasons – “We’ve seen it all before!”

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The best way of dealing with resistance is not to have to! If you have planned thoroughly and addressed all of the all of the key areas in successfully leading and managing change, you will have removed many totally unnecessary and predictable causes and sources of resistance. You will also now understand where and why resistance remains.




Sources of resistance


The 2 fundamental sources of resistance are fear and aspiration.

(1) Fear of change is a necessary and integral protective aspect of our survival mechanism. Very often we are right to be fearful of the potential consequences of a change and especially of an imposed change – and as it really may be detrimental to our best interests and survival in our current environment.

(2) “Aspirational resistance” is all about WIFM – “what’s in it for me” – and until we can see how a change is going to affect us and what the nature of the impact of that change will be in terms of: “Is it good for me or bad for me?” we will resist it.




Causes of resistance to change


In an organisational context, the biggest causes of resistance to change are the behaviour and attitudes of the leaders introducing the change and the managers seeking to implement it.

Specifically this all reduces to their failure to take full account of the impacts of the change, and especially upon those people who will be most impacted by the change.




Background and inter-related themes


dealing  with resistance to change,resistance to change,change management,change managers,change management training To a large extent dealing with resistance to change is rather like handling a Rubik’s cube in that all of the major themes are inter-related and many of these have been covered elsewhere on this site.

So wherever possible I will cross-reference you to the key relevant material. You will also find further useful links to additional resources and material on this and other sites.

In Resistance to change we looked at the bigger picture, macro-level perspectives of understanding and working with organisational cultures and sub-cultures; understanding the critical disconnects – where are they are and how they arise; and, dealing with resistance by working with informal networks.

For a background discussion please see:

What is change management? - "So how do we define change management?"

And: Tao of change - “Zen and the art of change management".

In this section I want to look at dealing with resistance to change at an operational and tactical level.

There are 5 key aspects to dealing with resistance to change:

(1) Factual aspect of dealing with resistance to change

(2) Emotional aspect of dealing with resistance to change

(3) Personal aspect of dealing with resistance to change

(4) Individual and collective capacity for change

(5) Acceptance of the limitations of change




(1) Factual aspect of dealing with resistance to change


A good communication strategy is essential to a successful change management process, and is integral to dealing with the factual aspects of resistance.

There are 2 stages to the factual communcation: before the change and during the change.

The structural and content aspect of your communications will benefit greatly from the discipline of a programme-based approach to leading and managing your change initiative.

For a full template of the questions please see:

Effective workplace communication - "Say what you mean and mean what you say".

I also recommend that you check out 2 articles by change communication expert Jennifer Frahm: "Six Tactics for Creating Conversations of Change" and "Why is Communicating Change So Hard To Do?" These articles are to be found towards the bottom of the page.

Additional resources on this site:

Barriers to effective communication - "But do they FEEL what you are saying?"

Communication strategy - "Ensuring effective two way communication with all your programme stakeholders"

Managing change in the workplace "Managing change within Business as Usual - 4 key steps to incremental change"




(2) Emotional aspect of dealing with resistance to change


Many thought leaders in the world of change management and change leadership are now speaking vociferously about the importance of the emotional dimension of leadership and the need to address the human dimension of change.

In my view, the definitive work in this area is William Bridges as he focuses on transitions and the psychological changes that lie behind behind significant organisational change.

He maintains that the situational changes are not as difficult for companies to make as the psychological transitions of the people impacted by the change.

For a summary and further links to key thought leaders' work, and for full details and discussion on Bridges' 3 phase transition process, plus key questions and guidelines, may I refer you to:

William Bridges - "Navigating the transitions of change"

For an extensive discussion and detailed outline of how to apply this, please see the:

Practitioners Masterclass

Or maybe as a first step, why not check out:

8 FREE Introductory Lessons from Practitioners Masterclass - HERE




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(3) Personal aspect of dealing with resistance to change


An often overlooked and ignored factor is YOU as change leader - or manager seeking to implement change.

By convention we speak of change “management” but the reality is that change involves leadership as well as management. The primary causes of failure in change initiatives are all people related, and to do with emotions. So change leadership requires some very special qualities in the person[s] leading the change. This is more to do with “being” than “doing”. What you do, and how you do it will be largely determined by how you are as a person.

Many people reading this will skip over it and either assume that they possess these skills and qualities or assume that they’re not that important.

For most people reading this, neither of those perspectives will be wholly correct…

Truth is - the mastery of this area is critical to the success of a change initiative.

HOW you are matters and is fundamental to overcoming personal resistance to change - i.e. resistance to YOU personally.

Daniel Goleman says:

"The leaders emotions are contagious - they infect the organisation"

Primal Leadership - "Acting as a leader in a way that primes positive emotions in people"

Managing Personal Change - Resources HERE




(4) Individual and collective capacity for change


Another often over-looked factor is that there are limits to how far and how fast people and organisations can change.

It is helpful to have a cognitive map and analysis that facilitates our understanding of this.

If you are using the Practitioners Masterclass materials, you will be familiar with the emphasis that I put on understanding, mapping, communicating and changing organisational cultures.

Why this is do important (yet so overlooked) - is because organisational cultures are the single biggest determinant of how an individual will respond in an organisational environment.

Well here is an expanded perspective of that concept that can be applied to individuals, organisations and societies.

There is an evolutionary path of progression that we all follow as our awareness and capabilities expand in response to increasingly complex changes in our external environment.

In other words, metaphorically speaking, you can not jump from childhood to adult maturity in one step and without evolving through all of the intervening stages of development.

A fairly straightforward cognitive map and analysis is provided by the use of maturity models.

My working definition is as follows:


    "A maturity model is a structured representation of the stages of evolution of an organisation, as it transition through various developmental states and stages, in response to the impacts of changes in the organisation's operating environment.

    This evolution represents progress to more developed or advanced states of learning, insight, understanding and practise that support its strategic goals."


There is an introduction to the concept and considerable supporting information about cultural, change management, programme and process maturity models here:

Project Management Maturity Model - "And the case for using a Culture Maturity Model Navigating through the issues to where you want to be"




(5) Acceptance of the limitations of change


Yet another dimension that is hardly ever discussed, in dealing with resistance to change, is that however well planned and executed "stuff happens" - often unexpected "stuff"!

Whether we like it or not there are significant aspects of our personal and organisational lives that are out of our control.

The experience for many of us is that change is imposed upon us and/or we are considerably constrained by factors totally beyond our control.

These things are frequently very stressful and often not fully resolvable.


    A necessary skill is learning to recognise and accept the limitations of the situations we find ourselves in.

    To loosely paraphrase the old teaching, we need to figure out what we can change and also what we can't change.

    We also need to develop the skills and use the processes and tools to lead and manage and respond to those areas we can change, as effectively as we can; but we also need to develop the insight to recognise what we can't change and the grace to accept it.

And this is something that is rarely, if ever, taught on change management courses!

Managing Personal Change - Resources HERE




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practitioners masterclass,change management training,change managers,change management



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