Psychologist of Work and Organizations

How to manage resistance to organizational change

There are two basic rules in organizational life:

  • Change is inevitable,
  • Everybody resists change.

For these reasons, how to manage resistance to organizational change is one of the most discussed issues in organizational management theory.

For many years resistance to change has been considered to be a negative reaction, something to avoid during the innovation process.
The same term “resistance” elicits a negative connotation. In the psychological “jargon” resistance is the subject’s attempt to avoid the awareness of something (generally a concept) real but perceived as a threat.
Consequently with this representation, employees’ resistance to change becomes in a certain way a pathological reaction (bad) to the change (good).

More recently, scholars started to suggest that employees’ resistance to organizational change should be considered valuable feedback. Adopting this point of view, objections are an important source of information about how the organizational change is managed and how it is perceived by the employees.

The assumption that a proposed change will definitely be good for the organisation is misguided, unless the management strategy is deemed to be appropriate for the change.
This consideration brings us to the following questions:
How do managers represent and classify resistance to change?
How do they actively manage resistance?

To better understand the managers’ assumption about employees’ resistance and objections we could use a conceptual framework. It’s the result of the intersection of two variables:
Manager’s assumption pertaining to the cause of objections;
Manager’s assumption pertaining to the nature of objections.

To simplify and better describe the meaning of the two variables above, it is possible to say that:

  • Cause of objections is the degree of emotion involved. There’s a common belief in organizations that considers objections based on emotions as unreliable. Following this point of view, only “rational” objections should be taken in to account;
  • Nature of objections has to do with the manager’s assumption about level of flexibility of the employees’ objections.

If we cross the two variables, we obtain a framework with four possible manager’s representation of the employee’s objections.

Objection as a disposition (high emotion, low flexibility). If the manager considers the resistance as an individual disposition, something deeply rooted in the psychological structure of the individual, he tends to consider the employee unable to change. The strategy he/she will adopt will be addressed to try to let the employee go. If it is impossible, the manager will endure the employee’s opinion without traing to change or compromise.

Objection as whistle-blowing (low emotion, low flexibility). The manager sees in this employee’s conduct some wrongdoing. Often there is also a negative moral evaluation of this conduct. The employee’s objections are understood as a sort of treachery. Managers that adopt this point of view tend to avoid the discussion and confrontation with employees considered dysfunctional.

Objection as trauma (high emotion, high flexibility). In this case the manager assumes that employees’ objections rely heavily on emotions. The proposed change acted as a sort of trauma, which in turn generates resistance. The adopted strategy, in this case, is to implement a sort of organizational therapy, generally based on training activities, aimed to let the trauma melt.

Objection as opinion (low emotion, high flexibility). When the objections are understood as opinions by the manager, there is good chance they will be used as valuable feedback. In this case managers will discuss with employees the problems generated by the organizational change. The manager feels comfortable in discussing the objections and enters in a dialogue with employees.

To conclude, when we promote an organizational change, besides the origin and nature of employees’ resistance, we should consider the strategy the managers will adopt to manage the objections.