What Is Resistance to Change?

How to Spot and Manage Resistance to Change in Your Company

Office manager addressing his team during morning meeting

 Tom Werner / Getty Images

Resistance to change is the act of opposing or struggling with modifications or transformations that alter the status quo. This resistance can manifest itself in one employee or in the workplace.

Employees put up a wall when they are poorly introduced to changes when it affects how they work and when they don't see the need for the changes. They also experience resistance when either not involved in the decision-making process or if they are left out of the procedural aspects of the process.

When employees believe their input is considered, they are less likely to experience resistance to change. Smart employers recognize this is a given before employees are asked to make any changes.

Don't Cause Resistance to Actions You Take

First things first: be mindful that you aren't the reason behind the resistance. You can cause serious resistance when you introduce change to your organization. You have enough to deal with when it comes to managing the stages of change adoption. Why add the stress of managing employee resistance?

Avoid all of this by taking your employees' feelings into account and pay attention and care to all the details from the inception to implementation of the changes to minimize employee backlash.

Challenges in Managing Resistance

Managing resistance to change is challenging for many reasons. Resistance to change can be covert or overt, organized, or individual. Employees may realize they don't like or want a change and resist publicly, and that can be very disruptive.

In a worst-case scenario, employees can be forceful in their refusal to adopt any changes and, thus, bring the confrontation and conflict to your organization.

Employees can also feel uncomfortable with the changes introduced and resist, sometimes unknowingly, through their actions, their language, and in the stories and conversations, they share in the workplace.

Covert resistance to change can damage the progress of your desired changes seriously as it is more difficult to deal with the resistance that isn't visible, demonstrated, or expressed except in these types of actions.

However, resistance to change is caused or happens; it can be a big threat to the success of your business and can affect the speed at which your organization adopts an innovation. It affects the feelings and opinions of employees at all stages of the adoption process. Employee resistance also affects productivity, quality, interpersonal communication, employee commitment to contribute, and the relationships in your workplace.

Spotting Resistance to Change

How do you spot resistance to change? Listen to the gossip and observe the actions of your employees. Note whether employees are missing meetings related to the change. Late assignments, forgotten commitments, and absenteeism can all be signs of resistance to change.

Something as simple as listening to how employees talk about the change in meetings and hall conversations can tell you a lot about resistance. Some employees may come to you for help navigating the changes. They may also share that the level of resistance is bringing them down.

Some employees will publicly challenge the change, its purpose, or how it is unfolding. An employee who has a higher position and more seniority may be more resolute in his or her resistance. Less well-positioned employees may resist collectively in ways such as a work slowdown, staying home from work, misunderstanding directions, and, in rarer cases, organizing the workplace to bring in a labor union.

Resistance to change appears in actions such as:

  • Verbal criticism
  • Nitpicking details
  • Loudly and verbally failing to adopt
  • Snide comments
  • Sarcastic remarks
  • Missed meetings
  • Failed commitments
  • Endless arguments
  • Lack of support verbally
  • Committing outright sabotage—the worst-case scenario

Employees also resist change by failing to take action to move in the new direction, quietly going about their familiar and accustomed business in the same ways as always, withdrawing their interest and attention, and failing to add to the conversations, discussions, and requests for input. 

Repeated Stress From Changes

Resistance to change can intensify if employees feel they have been involved in a series of changes that have had insufficient support to gain the anticipated results. They become change weary when this year's flavor-of-the-month is quality.

Organizations are constantly evolving, which means (continuous) change is inevitable. Last year's change was continuous improvement, employee involvement, and team development. This year it's a focus on serving internal customers, and three years ago, employees were asked to adopt a new management structure in a lean, agile workplace. With things constantly changing, it's no wonder employees end up being resistant.

Resistance is intensified because you need to gain support for the current change, which employees may or may not see in their best interests. You will also need to justify the former change and the need to change—again. Employees only have so much energy to contribute at work, and you don't want to abuse it.

Minimizing Employee Resistance to Change

In an organization that has a culture of trust, transparent communication, employees who are involved and engaged, and positive interpersonal relationships, resistance to change is easy to see—and also much less likely to occur.

In such a work environment, employees feel free to tell their boss what they think and to have open exchanges with managers about how they think the changes are going. They are also more likely to share their feelings and ideas for improvement.

In a trusting environment, employees think about how to make the change process go more smoothly. They are likely to ask their managers what they can do to help.

When a change is introduced in this environment, with a lot of discussions and employee involvement, resistance to change is minimized. Resistance is also minimized if there is a widespread belief that the changes are needed.