Resistance to Change: To overcome it, you first have to understand it. [3 Steps]


 “If you have an important conversation using muddy ideas, you cannot accomplish your purpose. You won't be understood by others. And you won’t be clear to yourself.”


Arlie Hochschild


If you are reading this article, you may have a current challenge, or fear a future challenge, or still be reeling from a past challenge, that you relate to the idea of “change resistance.”  I think it’s vital to acknowledge the reality of that problem to you or your organization. However, I don’t think the concept of “resistance” helps us much in understanding and diminishing that challenge.  Because it’s a muddy idea.

In this article, I’ll offer some alternative ways to think about the headwinds you may experience during a change and off three steps you can take to mitigate them.

When you say “resistance” what do you mean, exactly?

How would you answer the following questions?

  • What is resistance?  Is it any thought, emotion, or action that is not overtly or enthusiastically supportive of an organizational change? Is compliance, if done without a smile, considered resistance, or is it an acceptable level of support? How might we classify people who are both supportive and fearful of a change? 

  • Is resistance always bad, always good, or a bit of both? How do you categorize people who point out real issues with the solution or implementation process?  Helpful troubleshooters or complaining resisters? Is there value in the courage required to dissent openly?

  • Is resistance the domain of staff or can anyone play? When executives speak in ways supportive of the change but behave in ways that are antagonistic to the change — are they "resistors"? When staff aim to make changes to benefit the organization but are shut-down by management — who is the resistor?

If you aren’t sure — you aren’t alone!  A review of academic research on resistance concluded that there is no universally “or even widely accepted” definition of resistance.

An Alternative Approach — 3 Steps

When we say resistance, we are trying to represent a complex phenomenon that involves structural, technical, social, psychological, cognitive and contextual factors. How can we develop effective means of “overcoming” something we can’t clearly define?

For this reason, when preparing for change, instead of focusing on “overcoming resistance” I recommend that you:

  1. Clarify your expectations about likely responses to change — establish what’s truly a red flag and what’s a normal and anticipated response (even if negative).

  2. Ground your change approach in good practices focused on readiness.

  3. Seek to identify root causes (rather than “resistance”) — these are factors related to your current context that may work for or against the change effort. Tailor your change approach to take advantage of contextual tailwinds and mitigate headwinds.

 Let’s take a look at how you might go about implementing these three steps.

Step 1 — Moving beyond expectations for acceptance (good) and resistance (bad)

People can respond to change in a myriad of ways: cynicism, skepticism, withdrawal, questioning, sense-making, readiness, support, commitment. Therefore, instead of thinking about change recipients as reacting in the binary terms of acceptance (good), resistance (bad), it may be helpful to develop a more nuanced view amongst your change team. Some researchers (see Pideret for example) suggest thinking of responses to change as being multi-dimensional — related to how one thinks, feels, and behaves — and on a continuum, rather than all or nothing. For instance, you could be extremely supportive of a change — “That’s a problem we’ve needed to tackle for years!” — but also a bit fearful of it — “But, what will that mean for my job and team?”

Shaul Oreg and colleagues propose a framework that can help us to get more granular about potential change responses. Helpfully, they also suggest how different responses may influence the change process and outcomes. Keep in mind, this is an untested theory, so it’s a suggestion about how this process might work — rather than being indicative of how it actually does work.


You could use this, or another framework, to spur discussion on your change team. Openly talking about potential responses is one way to prepare the change sponsor, team, and others to respond productively to employees or other stakeholders during times of change. Not everyone is naturally graceful in the face of challenging questions or knows how to support those who may struggle with a change. Advance work can help those involved in driving the change to tailor their expectations and build relevant skills to successfully engage and support change recipients.  

Step 2: Creating an enabling change environment vs. planning for resistance

One of the most significant strategies for “overcoming resistance” may be to avoid provoking it in the first place. To do so, I recommend you intentionally design your change approach to build or support readiness. A variety of researchers indicate such an approach would address a number of factors, including:  

  • The Need:  Is the change necessary — how do we know?

  • Capability:  Is the organization/am I capable of implementing this change?

  • Right Solution: Is the innovation proposed appropriate to meet the need. Does it fit the organization (e.g., culture, values)?

  • Support:  Does the organization support the change (e.g., resources, leadership commitment)?

  • Impact: How will the change impact me and my team (e.g., benefits, losses)?

Strong change management practices can help to create a change effort that positively addresses many of these areas. In addition to these factors, contextual elements, such as individual characteristics, (degree of openness or resilience), or organizational climate (e.g., degree of trust in leaders) may also influence responses to change. Long-standing issues on a team or across the organization may pose significant obstacles that even a great change approach can’t overcome. Longer-term efforts may be required. (This is why analyzing your context is vital at the start of any change. To learn more about that, see here.)


Need help applying ideas like these on the job?

Check-out my change leadership coaching services.


Step 3: Identifying Root Causes - Examples

If you find yourself facing strong headwinds when implementing your change effort, there’s a good chance you’ve missed something important in your approach. Rather than calling these headwinds resistance, you may be more successful if you identify the root cause. I provide some examples below, including actions you might take to respond.  (For more examples, I recommend reviewing Erwin and Garman’s practical review of resistance research).

Contextual Elements

Potential Causes of Pushback

  • Low levels of trust in leaders and managers

  • Low levels of organizational commitment

  • Low employee satisfaction

  • Mixed messages/leader behaviors incongruent with the change

  • Individuals with a short-term focus or dogmatic point of view

 Possible Actions:

  • Review past employee surveys or other sources of staff feedback to identify what might be going on.

  • Consider short-term support to help mangers at all levels develop key change competencies: (e.g., support; trust; aligning words and actions).  

  • Collaborate with HR to identify longer-term development interventions that may be required.

  • Provide additional support to those who may be inclined to react to change negatively — it may be beneficial to prepare middle managers to do this.

  • Proactively engage those with greater resilience and openness to change.

The Need

 Potential Causes of Pushback

  • Unclear purpose or rationale for the change

  • Lack of clarity about what the change is

  • Lack of clarity about how the change benefits the organization or individuals

Possible Actions:

  • Develop and consistently communicate the vision for change, including the rationale and need for change, and what the change actually is. Use data/evidence to support your ideas.

  • Provide staff, middle management, and other stakeholders time for sense-making; offer opportunities for questions and group discussion.

  • Create feedback loops to help sharpen ideas and messaging.

  • Consider how you can increase the “fairness” of your effort. 

Capability to Change

Potential Causes of Pushback

  • Individual uncertainty about one’s ability to enact the change or be effective in the future state

  • Uncertainty about the organizational capacity to manage or implement the change

  • Past history of poorly managed or abandoned changes

Possible Actions:

  • Provide training and coaching to help build relevant skills and confidence.

  • Proactively communicate the plans, resources, and infrastructure that will support the change.

  • Differentiate the current effort from past failed efforts (or highlight how you are using learning from past change successes).

Right Solution

Potential Causes of Pushback

  • Technical issues with the solution being implemented

  • Misaligned goals and incentives

  • Losses experienced by an individual or team

Possible Actions:

  • Provide opportunities for diverse participation (input, feedback, design) to make more informed decisions about the solution being implemented.

  • Make necessary structural adjustments to ensure individual and group goals are aligned with change goals. Verify that the vision and goals of the change are in alignment with the organization’s strategic direction.

  • Use fair processes to make decisions; share information about how decisions were made.


Potential Causes of Pushback

  • Mixed messages from leadership

  • Leader behavior at odds with the change

  • Unfunded change mandate

Possible Actions:

  • Clarify the additional resources that will be made available to support the implementation of the change — money, people, time.

  • Increase leader and manager awareness of the importance of walking the talk. People may look to what leaders do, even more than what they say, during times of change.

  • Ensure change goals are aligned with existing performance management efforts.


Potential Causes of Pushback

  • Real or perceived losses created by the change

  • Unclear decision-making processes

  • Lack of clarity about what the change means at the individual or team level

Possible Actions:

  • Use fair processes to make decisions, which may lessen the long-term impact of any losses created by the change. Share information about how decisions were made. (For more on fairness and change see here.)

  • Increase leader and manager ability to attend to emotions and be supportive in their words and actions, particularly when the change creates “winners and losers”.

  • Support and prepare middle managers and supervisors to articulate the specific ways the change will impact individual and team responsibilities.

If you have additional suggestions based on your experience, I hope you’ll share them in the comments section. We will all benefit from your perspectives!

This article is a response to the #ChangeBlogChallenge on change resistance. Read perspectives of other challenge participants on this and many other topics here.


Dent, E. B., & Goldberg, S. G. (1999). Challenging “resistance to change”. The Journal of applied behavioral science35(1), 25-41.

Erwin, D. G., & Garman, A. N. (2010). Resistance to organizational change: linking research and practiceLeadership & Organization Development Journal31(1), 39-56.

 Oreg, S., Bartunek, J. M., Lee, G., & Do, B. (2018). An affect-based model of recipients’ responses to organizational change events Academy of Management Review43(1), 65-86.

Oreg, S., Vakola, M., & Armenakis, A. (2011). Change recipients’ reactions to organizational change: A 60-year review of quantitative studies. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science47(4), 461-524. 

Piderit, S. K. (2000). Rethinking Resistance and Recognizing Ambivalence: A Multidimensional View of Attitudes Toward an Organizational Change. Academy of Management Review, 25(4), 783–794. doi:10.5465/amr.2000.3707722 

Rafferty, A. E., & Simons, R. H. (2006). An examination of the antecedents of readiness for fine-tuning and corporate transformation changes. Journal of Business and Psychology20(3), 325.

Rafferty, A. E., Jimmieson, N. L., & Armenakis, A. A. (2013). Change readiness: A multilevel review. Journal of management39(1), 110-135.

ten Have, S., ten Have, W., Huijsmans, A. B., & Otto, M. (2016). Reconsidering change management: Applying evidence-based insights in change management practice. Routledge.