Recently I’ve been thinking about or perhaps rethinking change resistance.

Twenty years ago, when I first started out working in organisation change, resistance was seen as a difficult behaviour perpetuated by difficult people.  Every day I saw managers and change agents battling to overcome resistance to change, often without success.

Then one day, when I started conducting my own research into organisation change, I discovered that individual resistance to change was dynamic.  Someone who resisted the change at one point in a change programme could become a supporter of the programme at a later date.  This had nothing to do with any activity to reduce their level of resistance.

Instead, it came from how they felt about the organisation at that time and how they saw their role in it.  On any particular day.

Because of this I realised that instead of being a negative thing, perhaps change resistance represents the ultimate level of engagement in change.

After all, why would someone work so hard to resist something if they weren’t emotionally invested in it?

So, what is typically seen as resistance in organisations?

Resistance has often been typified as the actions of a few ‘difficult’ individuals – “…a counterproductive irritant for mainstream management thought…” (Mumby et al 2017, p. 1161).  Existing research in the field has highlighted different forms of resistance: active (such as striking) or more passive such as questioning decisions or withholding consent.

Resistance may also be organised as a group activity or unorganised and practised by an individual.  There are many acts which could be defined as resistance, ranging from those that could disrupt business as usual such as striking to individual acts of scepticism about the future direction of an organisation.

Researchers have discovered small or micro acts of resistance which despite being covert, can still lead to delays in introducing organisation change.  This is  “… the classic situation of the go-slow.  This is not explicit resistance (as in conventional revolts or strikes) or a mental pulling-out from the professional sphere (as in withdrawal), but a form of deviance which complies with the letter of the law but discreetly resists its spirit.  One goes through the motions … the everyday games of the players who discreetly resist, without proclaiming it loud and clear.” (Fronda and Moriceau, 2008, p.591).

The assumption underpinning all of this research is that managers in organisations are able to dictate the actions of others in the organisation and that there is little or no opposition to their ideas.  And where this opposition does occur, it is caused by resistance.  Change resistance is seen as a response to a change which does not fit with what a change agent or leader is trying to achieve.  But this resistance may be in the eye of the beholder and their interpretation of an individual’s behaviour.  For example, Vos and Rupert state that when a change does not progress as expected, the change agent may blame the situation on others to make themselves look better.

Can we be sure that a behaviour that we see at work is resistance?

The answer to that is a definite “no”.  What counts as resistance in one situation or organisation won’t in another.

Often, resistors are seen as tragic characters in opposition to the hero of the piece – the manager or change agent trying to create change.  There is an assumption here that individual resistance to change is due to the personal characteristics of the employee. This might be true in some circumstances depending on the change that is being introduced and how it fits with an individual’s personal characteristics.  For example, if an individual finds uncertainty difficult to handle, then they may find change harder than an individual who doesn’t  But, this assumes that everyone feels and acts the same every day which we know from our own experience isn’t true.  My own research has shown that people veer between different points of view during change and personality profiles such as Apter and Lumina Spark acknowledge the paradoxes that exist within human behaviour.

Reframing resistance as a necessary and constructive response to change rather than the irrational behaviour of a difficult employee is crucial.

As already mentioned, surely if an individual is invested enough in a change to express dissatisfaction or concerns about it, these views are to be welcomed.  For any seemingly resistant act or behaviour, it is important to ask, why might this person behave in this way?  Engage with them to understand their behaviour and why it occurs.  Work with them to understand where they are coming from rather than seeing resistance as something to overcome.

How should we reframe resistance?

I think it is time to reconsider what change resistance actually as.  Instead of being the work of a few disruptive individuals in an organisation, we could see it as the work of people who are engaged enough in the change to ask questions rather than just accepting what they are told.  People who need more detail about what is going to happen and who aren’t satisfied with big picture thinking. People who want to share their ideas and engage.

We should see resistance as a simple, every day fact of organisations.  Organisations are made up of many different, paradoxical humans who behave differently everyday.  Rather than trying to control or minimize resistance, we should welcome it as an expression of the diversity of organisations and an integral part of them.  This can be scary for leaders and change practitioners who may resist the idea of opening up the floor to others who might disrupt their carefully planned change programme.

But as we all know, change is anything but simple.  Change is complex and messy.  But, imagine what might happen if we opened our minds to the resistors point of view….

Imagine if we got the resistors involved in a change programme from the beginning rather than seeing them as an annoying side show that is preventing us from achieving what we want.

Imagine if we asked them questions and listened to what they had to say.  And used what we learnt to make our change programmes better, more inclusive and more robust.

Imagine if we considered them to be super engagers rather than resistors.

How might that influence the way that we deal with resistance?

And how might that make our organisations more human?

Let me know what you think.