Mark Craemer 1 Comment

In my work with organizations seeking to implement change initiatives, I continually underestimate the amount of resistance that comes as a result. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because we all cling to the status quo.

But why is this? What is it about change that makes us so reluctant to welcome it?

Change is a natural state for all things that grow, including organizations. This is because markets change, needs change, people change and, as a result, organizations need to change to continue delivering the right products and services. To resist change is to resist growth and this leads to stagnation and death.

And yet, we resist.

It turns out there is a fairly predictable path every person within an organization must travel along when managing their own anxiety around change. This path typically moves along the following timeline:

  1. Uniformed Optimism (blissful ignorance)
  2. Informed Pessimism (informed anguish)
    Checking Out
    Overt (public)
    Covert (private)
  3. Hopeful Realism (coming to terms)
  4. Informed Optimism (realistic support)
  5. Completion

This timeline comes from the work of Daryl R. Conner, author of “Managing at the Speed of Change,” and demonstrates how change initiatives can be implemented if we manage each stage effectively.

Resistance reaches its peak with the checking out phase. This is most responsible for derailing change initiatives and needs to be carefully monitored.

Overt checking out occurs when people resist the change openly by continually doing things the old way despite a new policy or procedure being put in place. It is deliberate and publicly demonstrated. This is a good thing too because the checking out can then be dealt with directly.

Covert checking out can be far more dangerous because it is done behind the scenes and in ways that are more difficult to detect. If a manager says all the right things in a meeting, but then goes back to his office and says something different to coworkers, it undermines the change and can be difficult to confront.

“Resistance is inevitable,” says Conner. “Many managers naïvely assume that if people like a change or think it is a good idea, they will not resist it. Significant change is a disruption in our expectations about the future. This disruption causes a loss of control, and we will resist this loss of control—even if we think the change is a sound one.”

According to Conner, resistance to change is governed by our perceived loss of control. And this loss of control (real or perceived) is sometimes not communicated because it is a feeling and we rarely speak about our feelings in the workplace.

The key is to manage resistance by recognizing the inevitability of it. Address it openly, honestly and consistently. Understand that resistance will be experienced differently based on positive or negative reactions to change. Overt resistance should be encouraged as it can get problems out in the open that can then be dealt with as they arise.

Realize that people may not be comfortable expressing the real reasons for resistance because it touches on their feelings and this requires an atmosphere for open and honest communication. Enabling an environment for an open conversation without fear of retribution may help uncover these feelings and thereby remove resistance.

Change is good. Change is necessary. And resistance to change is inevitable. Therefore, it is important to recognize this resistance and deal with it as it arises.

— One Comment —

  1. Mark,

    Nice article on change resistance. I especially like Conner’s pessimism model — it’s analagous to the “change dip” that most people are familiar with. I’ve found that there are some people inside the organization who like to thrive on the “informed pessimism” stage (that is to say, they enjoy proactively informing themselves with information that runs counter to the positive business case).
    You may be interested in a recent post of mine titled Strategies for Managing Resistance to Change. It complements your article nicely.

    -Jesse Jacoby

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