Resistance to Organizational Change: Causes, Attitudes and Mitigations

Greek Philosopher Heraclitus once said, “The only thing that is constant is change.” Although this statement was made in the mid B.C. years it still rings true today.  Change is constant, but our acceptance and attitude towards change makes all the difference.  Businesses can grow or fail based on their skill at managing change, and their response to the potential resistance to change.  Using peer-reviewed journals and other research, this paper will examine the causes of resistance to change, how the emotional reactions of fear and mistrust impact change efforts, how personal attitudes shape transitions, and how organizations can mitigate potential resistance by employing effective communication and, creating a culture of perceived justice.

Causes of Resistance


Resistance to change is an emotional response brought on by individuals undergoing a potential change.  Often the initial emotion is fear, due to a lack of knowledge, and a concern for the unknown.  In organizations, the first response when employees hear of a looming change brings with it a concern for how the changes will impact them personally.  Job loss, pay reduction, or an overburdened workload are the initial concerns brought about with the thought, “How will this affect me?”  This fear of the unknown can lead to resistance and left untended easily transfers to other employees and even customers.

[bctt tweet=”Fear of the unknown can lead to resistance. #changemanagement #organizationalchange” username=”S_H_E_L_L_E_Y”]

As uninformed employees begin to talk through the impending change allowing fear to grow, a mistrust develops.  This mistrust can have a cyclic impact within organizations.  Employees who do not trust, or who fear their leaders, are less productive.  Robert Hurley of the Harvard Business Review (2006) stated, “Although you’ll never see a financial statement with a line item labeled Distrust, the WorldCom fiasco underscores just how expensive broken trust can be” (Hurley, 2006).  Upon surveying executive seminar participants regarding working environments that include low levels of trust, Hurley found respondents frequently used words such as, “stressful,” “threatening,” “divisive,” “unproductive,” and “tense” (Hurley, 2006).  In turn, these feelings lead to reduced productivity and decreased customer satisfaction that eventually have a negative financial impact on the organization, leading to additional change, and then greater resistance.


Resistance to Change. The vicious cycle

Figure 1.  The vicious cycle of resistance to organizational change.


Managing emotions is paramount when dealing with change resistors.  In the Academy of Management Journal, Nguyen, Corley and Kraatz (2014) write about emotional reactions to change and state, “Emotional reactions often generate a change in readiness to act that prepares people to take action.  People determine a potential action response as they evaluate their own abilities to deal with the event.  If they determine they have adequate resources to deal with the event, they are more likely to respond actively.  Otherwise, they may adopt a passive/avoidance approach, which could be interpreted as a form of resistance to change.  As emotional reactions can impact both thinking and behaviour, they could influence subsequent legitimacy judgements and resistance to change.” (p. 1655-1656)


How Personal Attitudes Shape Transitions


Personal attitudes also hamper the progress of change and impact the transition process.  As individuals vary in their predispositions towards change, their behaviour and acceptance of change will differ.  In discussing individual resistance to organizational change, Dr. Chuang, professor of International Business at Chein Hsin University in Taiwan stated, “It is often assumed that everyone in an organization shares the same objective and homogenous reality, but not all participants facing a change initiative encounter the same conditions.  Differences in participant responses to change usually reflect either misunderstandings about the change or individual characteristics and attributes.” (Chuang, 2012)

[bctt tweet=”Personal attitudes hamper the progress of change and impact the transition process. #changemanagement” username=”S_H_E_L_L_E_Y”]

Individuals navigate organizational changes with a varying set of emotions that change management specialists relate directly to the Five Stages of Grief, as outlined by noted psychiatrist and hospice pioneer, Elizabeth Kubler Ross (“Elisabeth Kubler Ross Foundation”, n.d.).  Stages of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance experienced during a tragic loss are similar to the emotions of employees undergoing organizational change.  Though I would argue, the grief in managing organizational change is not as intense, and emotions can fluctuate from one stage to another in an unpredictable pattern based on how and when information is disseminated.  Additionally, these 5 stages do not consider the emotions of fear and hope, which can cause or alleviate resistance respectively.

When emotions flare, progress is inhibited.  Our attitudes toward change, failure, and short-comings impact our resiliency, and maladaptation to change can have a detrimental effect on profits.  In the Journal for Quality and Participation, Rick Maurer (2011) wrote, “In average organizations the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is 1.5:1.  In world-class organizations, the ratio of engaged to actively engaged employees is near 8:1.  Actively disengaged employees erode an organization’s bottom line while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process.” (p. 18)

The paper goes on to inform, that within the U.S. the estimated cost of lost productivity due to disengagement is more than $300 billion (Maurer, 2011).


Mitigating Potential Resistance

There’s more to this paper.  Click to read or download the full paper with references.  Absolutely free.


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