Employees Actually Embrace Change: The Chimera of Resistance

 

Eric B. Dent, University of Maryland University College

Edward H. Powley, Case Western Reserve University

 

 

Executive Summary

 

            The belief that people resist change is widely held in organizational life.  This paper will explore that belief in a number of ways.  The phrase “resistance to change” is unmasked by briefly deconstructing the term.  A review of the literature suggests that there is no commonly held definition for resistance to change.  In fact, definitions range from willful opposition to valuable passion.  To begin an effort at understanding change in all its richness and depth, an exploratory study used interviews to reveal the fullness of how people experience change at work.  Six primary dimensions surfaced from 945 change incidents analyzed.  Reactions to change varied considerably by dimension.  Overall, interviewees made 1.9 positive statements about change for every negative statement.  The belief in resistance to change may be not only inaccurate, but one which impedes the success of change efforts.

 

 


“People resist change.”  This belief is deeply ingrained in organizational life.  It is inscribed in corporate documents, management textbooks, policy assumptions, executive training materials, consulting reports, and in societal media outside of organizations.  The purpose of this paper is to explore and “unmask” (Hacking, 1999) this belief, demonstrate that it is a poor metaphor for change management, show that “resistance to change” is not commonly defined in the literature, and offer the results of an exploratory empirical study which suggests that people may actually be more willing to embrace, rather than resist, change. 

 

“Change is the only constant.”  This aphorism captures the dynamic of “permanent white water” (Vaill, 1991) commonly expressed in today’s world of work.  Yet, little work has been done to understand thoroughly the ways that people experience and interact with change.  During any work day, someone has changes she is trying to make, changes she is required to address, and changes which are mutually causal - situations in which the person is simultaneously influencing and being influenced by the change.  This paper will attempt to deal with only a portion of that terrain, the dynamics of resistance as it relates to change.

 

A statement from Margaret Wheatley guides the exploration of “resistance to change” in this article. 

 

A person in one organization said resistance to change is like a mantra we feed ourselves: “In every team meeting we get together and spend the first twenty minutes saying change is hard.  People resist change.”  This is an unexamined belief about human nature.  Our assumptions about stability and the promises of equilibrium were all also promises and that is not how life is (Wheatley, in Maurer, 1996, p. 51).


This paper will not be able to explore a belief about human nature broadly.  What can be done here, though, is to determine how that belief has pervaded organizational functioning and to explore alternatives to holding this belief.

 

Anyone who has worked in, or studied, organizations can testify to the poor track record of organizational change efforts.  A meta-analysis of large-scale change efforts suggest that positive outcomes occur less than 40 percent of the time (Porras and Robertson, 1983).  Kotter (1995) observed a decade of change efforts and characterized a few as very successful, a few as utter failures, and the rest mostly toward the lower end of the scale.  Pascale, Millemann, and Gioja (1997) report a Harvard Business School study which tracked the impact of change efforts among the Fortune 100.  Of the change programs initiated between 1980 and 1995 (average expenditures exceeded one billion dollars per corporation), only 30% produced an improvement in bottom-line results that exceeded the company’s cost of capital, and only 50% led to an improvement in market share price.  In another study, senior executives in Fortune 500 companies reported that less than one-half of the changes in their organizations were successful (Maurer, 1996).  Moreover, they suggest that resistance to change was the main reason for failure.  We believe that the executives are looking in the wrong place for the culprit.  It may be that belief in resistance to change itself, is a contributing factor to the dismal history of change efforts in organizations. 

 

 

Unmasking “Resistance to Change”

 

            Given the prevalence of the term resistance to change and the implications it has for change strategies in organizations, our paper puts forward three approaches to unmask resistance to change. This three-rationale approach to deconstruct this concept, referred to as metatriangulation, is an effective strategy to build a logical argument based on multiple paradigms (Lewis and Grimes, 1999). This paper unmasks “resistance to change” from three perspectives:

 

(1) The term “resistance to change” is deconstructed.

(2) The literature of the field is used to show that the term and its definitions are problematic.

(3) An empirical study is reported to show whether and how “resistance to change” is actually operationalized.

These three varying perspectives provide a rich, multi-faceted lens into “resistance to change.”

 

Karl Mannheim (1925/1952) wrote of the unmasking turn of mind which “does not seek to refute ideas but to undermine them by exposing the function they serve” (Hacking, 1999, p. 20).  The notion is to critique a model by revealing its false validity and suggesting the reasons for its perpetuation.  The concept of “resistance to change” can be deconstructed from a number of perspectives.  Foremost, perhaps, the language “resistance to change” labels, with the derogatory term “resistors,” those who happen to disagree with a change idea.  Since the phrase is commonly employed by management to refer to the rank and file, the term automatically validates the change approach of management and discounts any concerns of others as “resistance.”  The belief in “resistance to change” crowds out equal forums where reasoned discussion can occur among a group of people.  Not surprisingly, people who are involved in the design and development of change efforts are rarely called “resistors” (Nord and Jermier, 1994).  Ironically, the typical guidelines for overcoming resistance prescribe different behaviors for the changer, not the changee (Dent and Goldberg, 1999a).

 

A second critique is that the use of the word “change” is too monolithic (Dent and Goldberg, 1999b).  It is obvious that a variety of changes are embraced, not resisted, by people every day.  Although they may come with disadvantages, few people resist a pay raise, the opportunity for a work assignment they consider exciting, or more resources to accomplish their work.  Consequently, at face, it is simply inaccurate to suggest that people resist “change” (it could be that they still resist something, but “change” is not the accurate term).

 

Another important unmasking may be that an inappropriate generalization of “resistance” may have occurred.  Many psychiatrists today believe that Freud inappropriately generalized his findings from a population with poor mental health to people as a whole.  It is known that Kinsey inappropriately generalized his findings about sexual behavior from the prison population and others institutionalized to the population as a whole.  Likewise, it may be that those researchers who first observed resistance in individuals or organizations did so among less healthy populations.  Farson (1996) has noted that it is characteristic of those seeking therapy to be resistant.  Those resistant behaviors, though, may not reflect the average person.

 

What people understand resistance to change to be today is a different concept from what Kurt Lewin proposed (Dent and Goldberg, 1999a).  His notion was a systems concept in which resistance could arise anywhere in the system.  The term today is commonly described as a psychological one in which employees willfully oppose the desires of management.  A recent review of the empirical research (Piderit, 2000) finds that “resistance to change” is conceptualized three different ways: as a cognitive state (Watson, 1982), as an emotional state (Vince and Broussine, 1996), and as a behavior (Brower and Abolafia, 1995).  Piderit (2000) argues that these three conceptualizations can be integrated in such as way that “ambivalent attitude” is a better overarching concept.

 

A final critique to be offered here is of the use of the word “resistance.”  Kurt Lewin is credited with appropriating the term from the physical sciences, where it has a very precise meaning.  Harman (1998) and Bateson and Bateson (1987) are among those who have warned that when a discipline from one level (in this case human science) borrows a concept or metaphor from another (physical science) the concept or metaphor must be revalidated in the new discipline.  Although it is clear what resistance means in the physical sciences, what does it mean in organizations?  Is resistance equivalent to disagreement?  to sabotage?  to bad-mouthing but reluctantly going along?  to all of these?

An entire paper could be devoted to further deconstruction of resistance to change.  Since this paper has additional purposes, we will move now to discussing the extra-theoretical function.  If we are correct in revealing all of the problems of belief in “resistance to change” identified in this paper, why does the belief continue to be held so strongly and deeply?  There appears to be at least one primary purpose.  If I am responsible for initiating a change effort, and the results are not achieved, I can relieve myself of responsibility and shift the blame to you by claiming that I encountered resistance to change.  I may escape having to defend the merits of the idea by shifting the focus to the resistance.  What if my idea was lousy?  What if my plans for execution were poorly conceived?  What if I simply had as much difficulty as any human does in predicting the unfolding, emergent dynamics of a change process?  The scapegoat of resistance to change deflects blame from all of these questions.  

 

Harvey (1999) has offered a perhaps more cynical extra theoretical function.  He has also called for the elimination of the concept, “resistance to change.”  He believes that the term has not been eliminated because behavioral scientists are apparently resistant to suffering the loss of the emotional and financial support they derive from conducting seminars, writing books, producing scholarly articles, and consulting on the puzzling problem of overcoming resistance to change.

 

 

Summary of Resistance Definitions in the Literature

 

There is tremendous irony in observing that while best-selling textbooks so completely accept belief in resistance to change that they don’t even bother to define it (Dent and Goldberg, 1999a), academic and practitioner sources are filled with a variety of definitions which take dramatically different approaches to the concept of resistance to change.  A pundit might remark that we really do not have any idea what resistance to change is or if there is any such thing!   Table 1 documents over ten qualitatively different ways in which “resistance to change” is defined in the literature (including popular works).  This listing is meant to show the breadth and variety of definitions, not to provide a comprehensive literature review. These definitions range from Beer, Eisenstat, and Spector (1990) who claim that resistance is a function of the fallacy of programmatic change to Kotter (1996) who finds that resistance is the obstacle in the organization’s structure to Spreitzer and Quinn (1996) whose work suggests that resistance is found in individual and organizational characteristics (such as self-esteem and barriers to work) to Goldstein (1994) who invites leaders to see resistance as a temporary attraction to a state of equilibrium.  Note that these lenses span the conceptual terrain of affective (Weisbord, 1987), humanistic/existential (Maurer, 1998), cognitive (Johnson, 1992), political (Smith, 1982), and structural (Senge, 1990) approaches to change.  A possible conclusion from the variety of perspectives in Table 1 is that resistance to change is not a natural, expected phenomenon.

 

 

 

 

Table 1.  A Wide Variety of Definitions of “Resistance to Change”

Author

“Resistance to Change” Definition

[Traditional]

resistance is willful opposition which must be overcome

Weisbord (1987)

resistance is valuable passion which can be channeled more constructively.

Spreitzer and Quinn (1996)

resistance is found in individual and organizational characteristics (such as self-esteem and barriers to work)

Senge (1990)

resistance occurs when the change has not impacted a compensating feedback loop.

Goldstein (1994)

resistance is a temporary attraction to a state of equilibrium

Johnson (1992)

resistance is one side of a polarity (interdependent opposite)

Beer, Eisenstat, and Spector (1990)

resistance arises as a result of the fallacy of programmatic change

Bridges (1986)

resistance is an incomplete transition in response to change

Kotter (1995)

resistance is the obstacle in the organization’s structure

Smith (1982)

resistance is found in the dominant coalition

Maurer (1998)

resistance is protection, energy, and paradox

 

To more fully illustrate the differences in “resistance to change” perspectives, the viewpoints of Weisbord (1987), Spreitzer and Quinn (1996), and Goldstein (1994) are presented here in greater detail.  These three are selected because of the strikingly different perspectives they provide on resistance to change, although other choices from the list could, perhaps, equally illustrate the point.

 

 

Resistance as Valuable Passion

 

Marvin Weisbord (1987) uses the framework of the “four-room apartment,” developed by Claes Janssen, to explicate many of his writings about resistance to change.  In Janssen’s model, people and/or organizations can be viewed as being in one of the following four rooms:

 

            Contentment - “I like it just as it is”

            Denial - “What, me worry?!”

            Confusion - “What a mess!  Help!”

            Renewal - “We have too many good ideas.”

 

Cycling through the rooms occurs “depending on perceptions, feelings, or aspirations triggered by external events” (p.  266).  Resistance has a different appearance depending on the room.  Contentment and Denial are marked by the “urge to hold on - to old habits, familiar patterns, relationships and structures (whether they satisfy or not) - [which] is as old as human history” (p.  268-269).  In Confusion, the person or organization knows that a change is required and this prospect generates anxiety.  Weisbord sees anxiety as energy being stored while the person or organization decides


whether to invest it.  Resistance can dissolve when the person or organization chooses to channel the energy differently.

 

Weisbord’s philosophy of change includes the notion that it can be painful or exhilarating but not avoided (p.  94), and that change represents a “little death,” a “letting go of the past to actualize a desired future” (p.  266).  One of Weisbord’s keys to successful change is to focus on an idealized future, thereby generating energy, enthusiasm, optimism, and high commitment which is used to develop present value-based action plans.  Such a philosophy is at the core of Weisbord’s large-scale change process, the Future (Strategic) Search Conference (1992).

 

Weisbord offers at least three ways that those wanting to effect change can actually increase the resistance they may face.  One is by relying too heavily on external consultants who may design a change strategy more from their own value base than that of the organization members.  Secondly, Weisbord suggest that consultants can add to resistance if they simply mirror back to the organization data framed in a way that is already familiar to organization members.  Most provocatively, Weisbord claims that applying the classical principles of change methodology to people in Contentment or Denial will only slow their change process.  Weisbord’s even bolder assertion is the hypothesis that “if someone were to revisit OD cases from this perspective they would see that ‘failure’ correlates closely with ‘excellent’ action-research methods foisted onto people living in Contentment or Denial” (p. 268).

 

 

Resistance as Individual and Organizational Characteristics

 

Spreitzer and Quinn (1996) report a model of managerial change based upon a large-scale change effort at the Ford Motor Company.  Over a four-year period, 3,000 middle managers voluntarily participated in a management development program which was designed to be transformational.  Spreitzer and Quinn hypothesized a model which was then tested with 191 managers who participated in follow-up sessions.  This model suggests that a manager’s willingness or resistance to engage in a transformational change initiative depends on individual and organizational characteristics.

 

Spreitzer and Quinn hypothesized that the following individual factors would be significant in whether or not a middle manager would initiate a transformational change effort (as opposed to transactional change, personal style change, or no change): 1.)  high self esteem, 2.)  positive affect, and 3.)  “high potential.”  Their research confirmed the first two factors, but paradoxically found a statistically significant negative finding with “high potential.”  The middle managers making transformational changes targeted at the organizational level had both the lowest promotion rate prior to attending the training and as measured 2 ½ years later.  Spreitzer and Quinn learned from plateaued managers that they felt they could now do “the right thing” (transformational change) since they didn’t feel restrained by the political race for promotion which would encourage them to do the “political thing” or the “easy thing.”  Spreitzer and Quinn also hypothesized that some factors of organizational context would be significant: 1.)  social support of coworkers, 2.)  social support of supervisor, 3.)  perceived structural barriers, and 4.)  perceived imbedded conflict barriers.  Again, their study confirmed the first two factors as statistically significant.  Spreitzer and Quinn found that all of the managers reported some structural and cultural barriers and the presence of the significant factors above is what made the difference in whether or not a middle manager was willing to attempt transformational change.

 

Spreitzer and Quinn claim their findings affirm Smith (1982) whose laboratory work revealed that whoever is in power will seek to maintain the status quo rather than seek change.  These authors believe that if leaders call for more empowered behavior, but do so in ways that are seen by followers as disempowering, then resistance will result.

 

 

Resistance as Temporary Attraction to Equilibrium

 

The chaos and complexity perspective of resistance to change, embodied here in the work of Jeffrey Goldstein, is radically different from the traditional perspective as well as the others profiled here.  Goldstein (1994) questions the pillars of traditional change management.  He suggests that the common requirements for success - extensive planning and design of the change effort, precise assessment of the current situation, accurate anticipation of resistance to change, and adeptness at overcoming resistance - are all predicated on assumptions that rarely hold in situations of organizational change.  Moreover, this classic success strategy may not only be unhelpful, it may make the situation even worse.

 

From this perspective, resistance is seen as a temporary phenomenon of a system which is tending toward equilibrium.  Extended periods in equilibrium lead to organizational decline.  Therefore, in order for an organization to grow and develop, it must enter into a state of far-from-equilibrium (FFE) conditions.  Goldstein sees the challenge of organizations as “not how to pressure a system to change, but how to unleash the system’s self-organizing potential to meet a challenge” (p. 9).  Goldstein continues “what is radically new about the self-organizing perspective is that a work group or organization as a natural system will spontaneously know how to reorganize in the face of a challenge, if the obstacles hindering its capacity to self-organization are removed” (p. 9).  This self-organization occurs when a nonlinear system (such as an organization) is in a state of FFE.

 

The challenge, then, for those interested in systems change, is how to transition an organization from a state of equilibrium to one of FFE.  Goldstein believes that organizations have an innate tendency to change which is sometimes suspended by the temporary condition of being at equilibrium.  His assumption counters the classic assumption.  What contributes to this sojourn in equilibrium?  When employees are attracted to extant positive values rather than those represented by a proposed change.  Once again, Goldstein turns the traditional model upside down.  Resistance, then, is an attraction to some values, ideas, procedures, etc. which provide a benefit rather than an opposition to the proposed change.  The mental model of resistance “conjures up a picture of employees as obstinate, stubborn, and willfully oppositional” (p. 55).  If lack of support is seen this way, the natural remedies are overpowering, overcoming, or cajoling out of resistance.  Goldstein holds that people are put off by perceived threats to their sense of autonomy, integrity, and ideals.  Under these conditions, the operative dynamic for people is one of attraction to what gives them self-esteem, dignity, and a sense of personal power.  The question changes from how or what people resist to how or what people are attracted to.

 

 

A More Nuanced View of Change - An Exploratory Empirical Study

 

 

Methodology

 

Having found the metaphor of “resistance to change” lacking, and having discovered that the field has no generally accepted “resistance to change” paradigm, we undertook an exploratory research effort in order to better understand the sophisticated nuances of change - what aspects people support or embrace, which they disagree with, how they manifest their lack of agreement, how participation affects agreement, and so forth.  The first step in this exploration was to get a sense of these items directly from organizational members. We conducted the exploration of change between August 1999 and December 2000.  The methodology was to conduct semi-structured interviews with a number of organizational members asking them, first, to name five organizational changes in which they had participated that had occurred at work in the last three years (the larger in scope, the better).  Once these changes had been identified, respondents were asked follow-up questions such as, what aspects of these changes did you actively support or embrace?  What aspects of these changes were you concerned about because you saw them as bad ideas (or for some other reason)? 

 

The authors, with the assistance of graduate students, conducted 239 interviews.  Each interviewee reported between three and five organizational changes that they had been either involved with or affected by; interviewees reported a total of 945 change events.  The purpose of this exploration was to learn how people describe change in order to develop theory.  The interviewees were organizational members throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe.  The sample, however, is heavily weighted with organizations in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.  The only known industry biases in this sample are that government (and particularly the military) are over represented, as is the service sector (particularly technology firms, but no “dot coms”).

 

Table 2 outlines the semi-structured interview protocol used to elicit responses regarding the changes interviewees reported.

 


 


Table 2: Interview Protocol

Positive Aspects of Change

Negative Aspects of Change

1.       What aspects of these changes did you actively support or embrace? (please cite three examples for each case)

2.       What aspects of these changes did you feel were a great improvement?

3.       Why were you personally, positive about these changes?

4.       What actions did you take to help this change?

5.       Were most people also positive about this change? If not, why not?

 

1.       What aspects of these changes concerned you? Why? (please cite three examples for each case)

2.       Why do you feel these changes were a bad idea?

3.       What did you do to try to get the idea changed?

4.       How did you express your lack of enthusiasm for these changes?

5.       Were these changes bad for you personally, for the organization, or both?

6.       Were most people also negative about this change? If not, why not?

 

 

Categorization

 

Patterns in the 945 changes reported suggested six dimensions which were further divided into the following 34 categories, listed in Table 3 under their respective dimensions.  These categories are not mutually exclusive; that is, each change identified in the interviews could be coded in one or more categories or dimensions. For the purposes of analysis, the number of possible categories and dimensions for each change was limited to two.  Nearly fifty-two percent of the changes had two categories (489 of 945); 48 percent had only one category (456 of 945). Additionally, changes were scored only once under each dimension; in other words, a change could not be in both the “demographics” and “HR policy” subcategories in the HR dimension.


 


Table 3: Change Dimensions and Categories

Business processes
and practices (BP)

Human Resources (HR)

Leadership
and Management (LM)

<        Business life cycle changes

<        Military operations

<          Organizational processes/operations

<        Strategic alliances/ external partnerships

<        Strategic mission

<        Team structures

<          Compensation & benefits

<          Demographics

<        HR policy

<        Job responsibilities

<          Position/employer

<        Severance

<          Staffing/recruiting

<        Training

<          Empowerment

<        Leadership

<        Policy changes

<          Political/Congress

Organization
Structure (OS)

Individual (IN)

Technological (TE)

<        Core competencies

<          Geographic regions

<          International versus domestic

<          Organization structure

<        Relocation of business

<          Reorganization/
realignment

<        Career pathing

<        Transfer

<        Job workload

<        Job/role clarification

<        Promotion

<          Sentiment/interpersonal

<        Hardware

<        Software

<        Systems

<          Training/distance learning

 

The dimensions demonstrate the multifaceted nature of organizational change and give a holistic perspective of change initiatives (i.e., change is not localized to one discipline or field of practice). For example, some interviewed individuals discussed and identified changes at an individual rather than an organizational level of analysis. Categories representing these types of changes were created and labeled as individual (IN) dimensions of change. On the other hand, change at the organizational level was also quite common. These changes are labeled as business process (BP) or organization structure (OS). It should be noted that large-scale change initiatives require movement of multiple resources and affect many people at all levels. Further, an important aspect of change is that making adjustments in one area will most likely influence other dimensions; otherwise said, large-scale change initiatives shape and mold individuals as much as they do organizations.

 

It is interesting to note that the dimensions that were coded together the most frequently were business processes (BP) and organization structure (OS), with 159 incidents. Other frequent dual codings are shown below (the figure represents the number of times the dimensions were both coded).

 

C         BP-OS             159

C         HR-LM              58

C         HR-IN               48

C         BP-LM              38

C         BP-TE               33

 

In addition, approximately 64 percent of the changes in the technological (TE) dimension were not coded in conjunction with any other dimension. This means that the majority of technological changes were not associated, by the interviewees, with another change dimension.  When TE was coded with other dimensions, it was associated with Organization structure (OS), Business Processes and Practices (BP), and Human Resources (HR). Conversely, the changes in the leadership and management (LM) dimension were coded 88 percent of the time with another dimension.

 

 

Change Frequencies and Positive/Negative Ratios

 

Because the respondents were encouraged to think of changes large in scope, it is not surprising that the three most frequently cited categories were Business Processes and Practices (BP), Human Resources (HR), and Organization Structure (OS).  Including tallies of ½ positive and ½ negative for mixed reactions, there were a total of 1.9 positive reactions for every negative one[1] (466 positive to 210 negative, 141 mixed). Table 4 outlines these ratios for the changes in each of the six dimensions.

 

In all six dimensions, change initiatives were more often viewed positively by the interviewees.  As discussed above, interviewees’ reactions to change were primarily positive. Respondents provided a neutral  rating for nearly 13.5 percent (128) of the 945 changes. “Neutral” refers to changes that were coded as neither positive nor negative.

 

Table 4: Change Frequencies and Positive/Negative Ratios

Change Dimension

Frequency    Percentage*  

Positive/Negative Ratio

Business Processes (BP)

Human Resources (HR)Organization Structure (OS)

Leadership/Management (LM)

Technological (TE)

Individual (IN)

387                41.0%

332                35.1%

282                29.8%

163                17.3%

149                15.8%

121                12.8%

   2.2:1

   2.3:1

   1.6:1

   1.7:1

   4.7:1

   2.0:1

 

* Percentages do not total 100 because of the possibility of double counting, as described above.

 

Perhaps, surprisingly, the Technological (TE) category had the highest positive to negative ratio, by far.  This finding seems contrary to the conventional wisdom that people are always complaining about their computers and the frequent changes in software applications and versions. This may be due to our sample’s technology firm bias. On the other hand, E-commerce and the Internet, new technology advances in microcomputers, and increased computer usage virtually changed the face of business and nearly every type of business in the last decade. One explanation for the positive ratio of technological changes is that it may be viewed as a tool to completely revolutionize business practices and processes, thereby increasing employee productivity and efficiency through technology.

 

Perhaps, not surprisingly, the least positive categories are those pertaining to Organization Structure (OS) and Leadership and Management (LM).  Given the state of the economy during the time of our study (particularly with respect to the technology sector), these least positive ratios suggest that interviewees saw changes in technology as a benefit. Interviewees welcomed technological changes but not the package of associated changes that accompany those changes: business realignment or reorganizations.

 

In general, though, when people are asked to identify the five most important recent changes in their work lives and to report what aspects of the change were negative and/or positive, respondents were more likely to discuss the changes favorably than negatively.  Several other patterns emerged in comments made by respondents which fell outside the interview protocol.  For example, respondents were much more likely to discuss a change positively when they initiated or took part in the implementation of change initiatives.  Secondly, those who responded negatively to the changes in their organizations typically did not actively participate or completely understand the change project.  This suggests that factors related to the social, interpersonal, and organizational climates play a role in someone’s response to change.

 

 

Conclusions and Suggestions for Further Exploration

 

Summary statements and suggestions will be offered in three areas - distinguishing the “macro” types of changes; breaking down the monolith of more “micro” types of changes; and, seeking conceptual clarity.  In Age of Unreason, Charles Handy (1990) notes that there are a myriad of different meanings and uses for which English speakers use the word change.  Not only can it mean “progress” and “inconsistency,” but it can be used as a universal noun, an intransitive verb, and an adjective among the seven uses Handy lists.  When someone uses the term “resistance to change,” we can be sure they do not mean “resistance to [pocket] change” (i.e. resistance to coins).  Yet, this article has shown that it may not be clear what someone means when she uses the phrase.  Two critically important distinctions seems straightforward.  Firstly, a differentiation is needed between change meaning “modified end-state” and change

meaning “the process used to get there.”  Interviewees continually went back and forth between these meanings, sometimes in the same sentence. 

 

Secondly, sometimes organizations take actions that no one in the organization will see as positive - laying people off, cutting budgets, reducing office space, delaying salary increases.  Such changes will be referred to here as “take-your-medicine” changes.  Elsewhere (Dent and Goldberg, 1999a), we have argued that “resistance” is a perfectly rational response in such cases and that the phenomenon would be more accurately labeled “resistance to loss.”  Sometimes organizations take actions intended to be good overall, knowing that some part of the organization will be hurt or inconvenienced.  Such actions include: reorganizing a division, streamlining a customer interface knowing it will increase administrative work in the organization, or making an acquisition knowing that the integration will require extra work for the employees.  These changes will be referred to here as “be-a-team-player” changes.  Thirdly, and of greatest interest here, organizations often take actions which they believe will be good for all and then are surprised when not everyone in the organization sees the change as positive.  These changes could be called “improvements.”

 

We contend that fundamentally different change leadership approaches are required to be successful in each of the three cases.  They may share some strategies, such as participation, but the goals, expected timeframes, and values are qualitatively different.  Our second suggestion is along the same lines as the first.  Although we have argued that it often isn’t clear what is meant by resistance to change, in a number of instances the intended meaning is that a person(s) is resisting a change irrationally - the resistor is being unreasonable in the position she is taking.  This is the case of “improvements” as described above.  Manual procedures are automated.  A new coordinating position is added in an area where lack of coordination has been a problem. 


An organization decides to go into a new area of business in order to expand its capability. 

 

Here again, we call for finer grained change interventions.  The strategies that are presently recommended for “overcoming” (i.e. addressing) resistance to change in textbooks, academic papers, and practitioner books are mostly presented as blunt instruments - if an organization experiences resistance, it should respond with a laundry list of “overcoming” strategies - education, communication, negotiation, coercion (if necessary), and so forth.  Most current work fails to differentiate based on the type of situation.  For example, if employees are not going along with a planned reorganization, should the organization use the same overcoming strategy as if the employees are not utilizing some new technology introduced? 

 

Bridges (1986, pps. 30-31) is one of the few writers who has proposed some differentiation.  He offers the following types of distinctions.

1.  If loss of turf is an issue, interest-based, not position-based negotiation is essential.

2.  If loss of attachments is an issue, rituals to mark those endings and team-building to reattach the person in a new place are effective.

3.  If loss of meaning is an issue, a meaning-based rather than an information-based communications campaign is important.

4.  If loss of a future is an issue, career- and life-planning opportunities can help people recover a sense of where they are going and discover their place in the new order.

5.  If loss of a competence-based identity is an issue, training in new competencies - social as well as technical - is essential if people are to retain their confidence.

6.  If loss of control is an issue, any possible involvement in creating the future will help to compensate for the loss.

7.  If loss itself is an issue, all such losses must be recognized and acknowledged.

 

Maurer (1996) also offers a helpful distinction.  He identifies three different levels of resistance -  1) the idea itself 2) deeper issues, and 3) deeply embedded issues - and suggests that different change strategies are required for each level.  He notes, for example, that level 1 resistance can be addressed primarily through intellectual strategies.  Academic articles have apparently not yet called for such a differentiation and not studied change approaches in this way.  Both of these steps are imperative.  In making such a suggestion, we are mindful that change initiatives can often not be easily pigeon-holed into categories such as “loss of control” or “loss of a future.”  Nonetheless, efforts which are customized to the wholeness of a particular situation should lead to greater success than the “one size fits all” set of strategies presently promoted.

 

Finally, conceptual clarity is needed.  The field of change management will continue to be handicapped if resistance to change can mean willful opposition, valuable passion, or energy and paradox.  These three differences (drawn from the larger list) cover difference conceptual phenomena.  In addition, many studies explore one aspect of change or resistance without addressing the larger concept.  Pasmore and Fagans (1992), for example, is helpful research which explores whether organizational members are adequately equipped to participate in change efforts.  Other reviews of organizational change and development, such as Woodman’s (1989) comprehensive work do not mention the word “resistance” a single time.  We are not sure whether to characterize this as good news or bad.  On one hand, change theory is not ensconced in the metaphor “resistance to change.”  On the other hand, change theory is mostly silent on the topic that Fortune 500 executives see as their primary impediment for successful change management.  From perhaps a different vantage, our request is the same as Woodman’s (1989) - noting that we have plenty of theories, what is needed is more efforts by theorists to integrate existing knowledge.

 

 

References

 

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About the Authors

 

Eric B. Dent is presently Executive Director, Doctoral Programs and Professor, Graduate School of Management and Technology, University of Maryland University College.   His research interests include leadership in dynamic, turbulent environments; mental models which underlie organizational behavior; and, complexity science applications in organizations.  Dr. Dent formerly served as Vice President of The Todd Organization, a national financial services consulting firm.  He has PhD and MBA degrees in Management from The George Washington University and MS and BS degrees in Computer Science from Emory University.   Dr. Dent is committed to an interdisciplinary research agenda and has published and/or presented research in many fields including behavioral sciences, education, consulting, history, complexity science, communication, spirituality, and philosophy.

 

Edward H. Powley is a doctoral student in Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. His work includes research with the Society for Organizational Learning's Sustainability Consortium, Roadway Express, and Weatherhead's Business as an Agent of World Benefit inquiry project. His research interests include Appreciative Inquiry, Action Research, sustainable change, hope in organizations, and the business impact of positive imagery. Prior to his studies at Case Western, Edward worked for the World Bank and conducted best practices research at the Corporate Executive Board in Washington, DC. He received a master's degree from the George Washington University in Organizational Management.

 



            [1] If the mixed reactions were dropped, the ratio would be 2.2 positive perceptions for each negative.