People Do Not Resist Change: Understanding the Real Causes When Your Project Meets Human Resistance
Updated: Oct 29
By Anja Skibdal Brinkler and Kenneth Linnebjerg
Both as an internal and external change agent, one of the common barriers you can encounter and experience throughout the various steps and parts of the project process is resistance from people in the team and/or organisation. Resistance which comes in many shapes and forms, spanning a wide scale of reactions from slight scepticism over reluctance to outright unwillingness. Sometimes expressed openly, sometimes silent. Reactions that may not always seem logical, especially in cases where the change involves something seemingly positive like improving a work flow or adding new and more work resources to a team. And – to further complicate matters – reactions that two people might express the same way outwardly, but which may be based on completely different and individual reasons and emotions.
The key to dealing with human resistance factors during project processes for everyone involved is first and foremost to understand the real causes for them. People may resist changes for all kinds of reasons. Reasons that have nothing to do with humans being inherently opposed to changes, as classical change management theories and strategies have otherwise popularly suggested. People do not resist change. Changes are a natural, fundamental and inevitable part of human life and work life. We are constantly exposed to change. In our private lives as well as our professional lives. Life changes. Job changes. Organisational changes. New projects. New processes. New security or health policy procedures. New IT solutions.
What people DO resist, are the circumstances, terms and/or potential consequences of changes – actual, probable, likely, envisioned or feared. Resistance is a sign and symptom of something being at stake or something not being handled the right way throughout the change process. To understand resistance, it is necessary to understand how changes feel to the people involved in and affected by them. There are a lot of different factors that can influence people’s reactions and behaviours when they are exposed to changes on the job, and many ways of categorising and cataloguing them. Doing so would be beyond the scope of this article. The following are just a few examples of some of the concerns and emotions that may come into play:
Job security issues: Changes can lead to situations with downsizing and layoffs, where employees fear losing their jobs. But changes in tasks and responsibilities, or in distributions of roles and responsibilities may also cause uncertainty and fears about the job situation. People may worry that they do not have the necessary skills to perform in their new role, or they may feel threatened in their position or suffer a loss of status and influence if tasks are reassigned to others.
Professional pride and self-image: Certain types of employees are extremely passionate about their jobs and assignments and take pride in delivering very high quality in their work efforts. They may experience changes as a threat to their self-image, their capacity to deliver high quality, and/or to their status as a valued and influential employee.
Lack of meaning or value: People may fail to see the meaning and value in changes if these are not communicated and discussed properly. Changes to a team or a workflow may e.g. be perceived as requiring more effort or causing more disruption than they generate improvement or value. In short, mutual dialogues on the meaning and value and the costs and benefits of changes are essential. Bad processes and oversights: In addition to communication issues, another cause for resistance is failure to involve people adequately in processes and solutions. The ideas proposed may not seem feasible from the employees’ standpoint, maybe because they are aware of things and details that have been overlooked, or maybe because they feel they could come up with better solutions. They may also feel that they have not been heard – or taken seriously. Group relations: Changes that affect the roles, relations, bonds and work dynamics in a group can cause a lot of disturbance on both personal, social and task related levels. Reorganisations or redistributions can shake up work routines and/or collegial relationships which have been perceived by employees as well-functioning and solid, which will cause them to develop negative emotions.
Overload: Changes require extra energy and resources. When people are already working around maximum capacity or beyond with projects, tasks, meetings, deadlines and servicing clients and stakeholders, they have already exceeded 'their bandwidth’, as Danish behavioural design expert Morten Münster would phrase it. Asking them to implement change in a situation where they are maxed out is an added strain on their already scarce resources. This also goes for changes within the team. Adding new members, for example, is not cost free to the other team members that have to integrate new colleagues.
Overexposure: We are bombarded with changes all the time, and overexposure generally leads to indifference, numbness and aversion. We simply grow tired. This is another reason why employees may seem less than enthusiastic about yet another change, however positively you try to sell it to them. Resistance has many causes and many faces and comes in many combinations. When dealing with resistance it is ultimately necessary to be curious and investigative in order to find out what is at stake for the individual person in the particular situation. What does the employee find important or valuable? What is his or her response an expression of or reaction to? There are a lot of different dialogue tools at hand to support this investigation.
When you do engage in dialogue, however, also be aware that sometimes the reasons for resistance may cross the line into territory that is too sensitive and personal for the person to share with an internal or external change agent. So you may not always get the full or true extent of the picture.
There are various ways of coping with resistance to change, depending on the unique situation and context. There is no ‘right’ or ‘correct’ formula as each case requires its own response. The common denominator, however, is that they all begin with asking, listening, understanding and finding common ground for moving forward. But first and foremost, they begin with understanding that there are causes behind and beneath people’s reactions. Reactions which are natural because we are dealing with humans, and because something is at stake for them when it comes to changes and change processes.
To start off, we invite you to reflect on the following: - How do you experience resistance in yourself in connection with change processes? - How do you normally interpret resistance from others? And how do you react when you encounter resistance? - What could you change in your approach to resistance going forward? And how?
For hands-on advice on how to address different kinds of resistance, change and leadership advisor Rick Maurer is a good place to start. Maurer identifies three overall types or ‘levels’ of resistance:
Level 1: Cognitive resistance - ‘I don’t get it’. This is the one connected with experiencing a lack of information and communication or people disagreeing with the idea, the plan, the terms, the data etc.
Level 2: Emotional resistance - ‘I don’t like it’. The type of resistance that arises with loss of power, influence, status, privileges, control or people being overexposed to changes. Level 3: Relational resistance - ‘I don’t like you’. Resistance at this level is based on personal dislike or distrust – perhaps due to a history between you or experiences with previous changes and projects, because of irreconcilable values, or because of what or who you represent as a change agent. In his book from 2010 and article from 2016 Maurer offers a number of suggestions on how to engage with resistance at the various levels. His white paper “Dealing Effectively with the Seven Key Challenges of Major Change” also provides inspiration and tools for dealing with these seven specific change related issues:
1. Making a case for change when struggling to get other people interested in a great project idea 2. Leading over-worked and under-performing project teams
3. Reducing resistance to change - spotting resistance, reducing resistance and building support
4. Learning from past project setbacks and failures
5. How to create and capitalise on employee engagement in planning and implementing change
6. How to keep change initiatives alive
7. Building support for change in the 11th hour The white paper also includes links to other resources. You can download it here free of charge http://www.energybartools.com/images/The-Challenges-of-Change-White-Paper.pdf
Sources and suggestions for further reading: Dent, Eric B. & Goldberg, Susan Galloway (1999): Challenging ‘Resistance to Change’, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science Vol. 35 No. I, 25-41. Retrieved from researchgate.net. The article is available for download free of charge. Maurer, Rick (2010): Beyond the Wall of Resistance, Bard Press. Maurer, Rick (2016): Dealing Effectively with the Seven Key Challenges of Major Change. Retrieved from http://www.energybartools.com/images/The-Challenges-of-Change-White-Paper.pdf.
Maurer, Rick (2009): “Resistance to Change - Why it Matters and What to Do About It”. Retrieved from https://rickmaurer.com/wrm/.
For some of the most recent perspectives on creating succesful change management processes (currently only available in Danish): Münster, Morten (2020): Jytte Vender Tilbage, Gyldendal. Ørsted, Christian (2020): Fatale Forandringer, People’s Press.  In 1999 Eric B. Dent and Susan G. Goldberg published a comparative study challenging the ‘myth’ of resistance as an automatic and natural human reaction to change. See suggestion for further reading.