Is change resistance a myth?

A couple of weeks ago a Harvard Business Review article appeared in my inbox which contended that ‘resistance to change’ was a myth because ‘people like change’. People do indeed like change but the logic was a little specious in that the connection between change resistance in corporate environments is not really related to change we create ourselves.

A vacation is a pleasant change of scenery, something most of us look forward to as a change of routine. A new car, gadget or an entertainment experience are all changes we enjoy. They are the sort of change we have control over and actually seek to create. Thus people do like this sort of change and it is highly unlikely that there will be any ‘resistance’ to what are intended to be pleasant experiences.

We contrast change situations which we have created ourselves and where we have some control over with the sort of change which does typically invoke active or passive resistance. I have encountered some form of resistance in all of the many change and transformation programmes I have been involved in. A change in organisational structure or the introduction of new processes is always disruptive in some way. Fear of the unknown is a natural response and employees will seek ways of mitigating personal risk to their status or power base. Imposed change is rarely seen as a positive at an individual level. What may be seen as a necessary response to changing financial and market conditions at a corporate level often translates into a personal threat at an individual level. This sort of change is not typically something we have created ourselves and not likely to be a pleasant experience. People generally don’t like this sort of change and will frequently seek ways of resisting it.

Overt change resistance is not something you tend to come across very often. Managers know that if they are seen as not following the programme there is a fighting chance that a target will be placed on their back. A reputation as a trouble-maker is not something you want in an environment where changes have to be made, especially if those changes involve organisational restructuring.

Resistance to change is far more likely to be covert and disguised. Lip service may be paid to the goals of the corporate change but underneath the ‘words of support’ there is no real drive or energy behind making things happen. Meetings are delayed or poorly attended. Key issues may be deferred or the implementation plan poorly designed. Agendas can be hijacked by items that are peripheral to the core challenges and less ‘streetwise’ team members might be encouraged to generate ‘issues’ which delay an implementation or distract attention. Targets can be made unrealistic in their ambition, virtually ensuring failure before the programme has really got underway. Business-as-usual can be prioritised drawing essential team members away from their change programme tasks and back into daily routines. There are dozens of ways a programme can be set-up to fail and all of them add up to the kinds of change resistance we see in both minor and major transformations.

So there are two forms of change. There is the sort of change that we create ourselves, the change that we enjoy and seek to repeat. Then there are the changes that are often imposed extraneously. It is this latter case where both active and passive resistance tends to occur. People do like change but only in a limited set of circumstances. They generally don’t appreciate the change required by corporate needs and will in many circumstances develop innovative ways of resisting it.

Change resistance is not a myth.