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10 Strategies to Overcome Resistance to Change in an Organization

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10 Strategies to Overcome Resistance to Change in an Organization
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10 Strategies to Overcome Resistance to Change in an Organization

In the Greek myth “Sisyphus,” the crafty and power-hungry Sisyphus tries to cheat death and life forever. In retaliation, Zeus curses him with the punishment of eternally pushing an immense boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll all the way back to the bottom, where he resumes the exhausting task all over again.

This may look familiar to someone encountering resistance while making a company-wide transition. Just when it appears you’ve achieved a hard-won vision, resistance threatens to push you all the way back to where you started.

It’s a very frustrating and defeating sensation. And it may cause someone to think that motivating a team to collaboratively work toward change just isn’t possible.

Don’t lean too heavily on messages from myths, however. Whether you’re making a digital transformation, going agile, restructuring the chain of command, or adjusting the culture, achieving a successful transition is well within the realm of possibilities.

It requires finesse. Partly, it entails having a good plan beforehand, mitigating various types of resistance and communicating the significance of the change to every employee.

Let’s look at some of the reasons why a company would want to make a big change, the types of resistance you typically encounter, and finally go over ways to overcome resistance to change in an organization.

Why Do We Need Change

Why Do We Need Change?

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery,” said former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Change is inherent to growth and progress. No one changes simply for change’s sake. The ever-evolving landscape in which an organization interacts demands constant growth and adjustment.

Let’s look at a few reasons why an organization might need to make a significant transformation.

New Generations in the Workplace

Time marches on, and the working landscape constantly evolves as new generations come of age and previous generations retire.

Currently, it’s estimated that Millennials and Generation Z (everyone born after 1981) constitute 40% of today’s workforce. Around 10,000 Baby Boomers retire each day, and so before long these two younger generations will outnumber Generation X and Baby Boomers, who currently represent 58% of the workforce.

These two younger generations have distinct preferences and priorities. On balance, both Millennials and Generation Z are looking for meaning behind the work they do; it’s about much more than receiving a paycheck. When they don’t like changes they see in a workplace, or the culture doesn’t jibe with their needs, they are quick to move on.

And so this new landscape demands that organizations change. In order to accommodate Millennials and Generation Z, workplace cultures must provide the work-life balance they crave, and create a culture in tune with their core values.

The Gig Economy

Oftentimes, bringing a project over a finish line requires special skills and expertise. However, this need is only temporary. For example, it doesn’t make sense for a company to hire a freelance artist full-time, if it only requires these services periodically.

The gig economy of freelancers and contractors is a rapidly expanding sector of the workforce. The number of people working in the gig economy is increasing fifteen times faster than the regular job market of salaried employees. Almost one third of Fortune 500 companies utilize part-time labor, and some rely entirely on freelancers and contractors!

This trend forces organizations to change in all sorts of ways. Human resources must develop new protocols for onboarding and training freelancers and contractors.

And culture changes, too. Project managers have a different strategy for building rapport and fostering communication when as much as half the team is temporary.

Attracting and Retaining Talent

Attracting and Retaining Talent

In the modern-day working landscape, people regularly move in and out of jobs for a variety of reasons. This makes recruiting and retaining talent a real challenge.

Culture is central to enticing an employee to stay with a company. A thriving culture invests in employees and provides them with opportunities to develop new skills and grow professionally. Additionally, it regularly demonstrates gratitude to employees for their time and contribution. Many younger employees are looking to work in a flat organization where the culture allows everyone to contribute to changes and leadership.

In order to keep ahead of the game, leadership looks closely at its own culture, and molds it to attract the workforce it needs.

Improving Products and Strategy

In today’s economy, products and customer needs change faster than ever before. If things like apps and online marketplaces aren’t constantly adjusted and improved, they’ll become obsolete in a matter of months.

As product managers vigilantly research customers and the market, it often becomes apparent that an organization needs to fine tune a product or develop new skills in order to keep up to speed with trends.

These transformations require flexibility, and an ongoing willingness for the team to make changes.

In sum, organizations are constantly forced to adapt and improve. Whether to suit employee or customer needs, change is integral to keeping pace in the world.

Why We Resist Change

Why We Resist Change

At the same time that change is unavoidable, resistance is guaranteed. We are creatures of habit, and from the very top of an organization all the way down through each rank in management, people easily become set in their ways, and generally prefer for things to just keep on as they are.

An effective transition plan anticipates this resistance, and seeks to understand the reasons behind it. Let’s look into various shades of resistance.

Comfort With the Status Quo

Most people find comfort in the familiar. They feel safe in a work environment where everything and everybody remains predictable, and they can expect their work day to proceed just as it did the day before.

When they suddenly have to report to a new boss, learn a new system or perform a different task, it threatens this sense of security and well-being.

They feel this loss of control especially when these changes come from the top down and they haven’t been given any say in implementing them.

Distrust the Leader

Any venture into the unknown is scary, and when an employee has a guttural dislike for upper management or certain persons in leadership, this poses an extra challenge to making structural or managerial changes.

A successful transition requires universal trust from the team, and so identifying distrust is the first step to overcoming it.

Challenge of Learning New Skills

Whenever we embark on doing something new and challenging, a little voice inside of us wonders if we’re really capable of it.

Whether a company is changing to a new software system, or going through a complete systematic transformation from something like waterfall to agile, everyone feels some apprehension. They wonder if they’ll be able to grasp the new concepts, and be able to keep up in time with everyone else.

In sum, change robs people of their sense of stability. We’re most inclined to remain in familiar territory, with known processes and systems. Letting go of the staid and steady requires courage and trust.

A healthy company culture is concerned with employee well-being. And so an effective leader understands these common forms of resistances, and anticipates them. In this way, he or she is able to assuage employees through change and transformation.

Types of Resistance

5 Types of Resistance

The classic image of resistance looks like someone slumped in her chair with her arms crossed, eyebrows furrowed and her mouth curved down in a distinctive frown.

“You can’t make me,” the posture suggests.

Some resistance to change is overt and in-your-face. However, more often than not, it’s far more subtle.

When a manager facilitates a transition, it’s good to know what kinds of resistance to look out for, in order to prevent or mitigate them.

1. Active Resistance

Sometimes employees resist change in direct ways. This includes things like acerbic exchanges with managers, hostility with coworkers, and a decline in work performance. Teams may exhibit more dysfunction than usual, and people may stop showing up to meetings or responding to emails.

Although it’s a challenge to work amidst active resistance, fortunately it’s easy to spot, and from there it can be diagnosed.

2. Passive Resistance

Sometimes employees look like they’re playing along agreeably with changes, while in fact they’re rebelling against them in barely perceptible ways.

Passive resistance includes things like someone showing up to a meeting, but not contributing much, or employees completing baseline work requirements, and then checking out.

Due to its covert nature, passive resistance is harder to recognize and diagnose. Having open dialogue and meetings where people are free to air frustrations are ways to decrease passive resistance.

3. Intellectual Resistance

Sometimes work procedures and protocol entail all sorts of requirements that make no sense at all to the person who’s doing the work.

When employees don’t ever see anything behind the curtain, they may not appreciate the need for the transition. For example, when an employee doesn’t know the bottom line and never interacts with upper management, they may not appreciate the need for a software transition or the reason behind a switch to agile.

The good thing about intellectual resistance is that it’s fairly easy to diagnose. It’s cured by good old fashioned communications. When people are let in on the reasons for a transition, this intellectual resistance breaks down.

4. Emotional Resistance

When you’re really in a groove, and know just what to expect from a software system or your weekly workload, making a change is just no fun.

It may feel like the “one more thing” that people just can’t take on at the moment. Or maybe it’s downright scary.

Handling emotional resistance is about creating space. It takes some time to learn a new system, or interact with a different team. Let people ease themselves into it, and allow for hiccups and a slower pace of production. Accept that workplace tension will be the norm for a time.

5. Personal Resistance

It’s pretty painful to make a change when you don’t want to. But when the orders come from a manager or boss you can’t stand, that really adds insult to injury.

When employees have marked dislike for the leadership, or good reasons to mistrust a company, then making a change is like trying to wade through concrete.

First, the management has to work on rebuilding broken trust and repairing relationships, and then it can proceed with the transition.

In sum, you’ll rarely have an employee tell you with perfect clarity: “I am resistant to this change, and here is why.”

Resistance, rather, manifests itself in all sorts of ways, and is caused by a variety of factors. It depends somewhat on the personality of individuals, as well as the type of change that’s taking place. Knowing what kind of resistance you’re up against is key to overcoming it.

Ways to Overcome Resistance to Change

10 Ways to Overcome Resistance to Change

Navigating change is an art. Even when leadership has conviction about where it needs to take a company, they still need to gauge how much a team can handle.

When a plan rolls out too rapidly, or it’s too ambitious to begin with, the entire effort collapses.

Additionally, “solving” resistance by pushing tension under the rug only makes things foment. And then change becomes impossible.

The objective with a big transition is to move past the growing pains, and bring a company into a new place: either with simpler systems, a transparent culture, or a better product.

Let’s look at ten strategies and methods for overcoming resistance to change within organizations.

1. Explain Why

Do you ever find yourself doing things at work just because you know you have to? And no one’s ever really explained the reason why?

No one performs to their potential when work seems meaningless, or they feel like a cog in the wheel.

Conversely, when people understand the reason behind tasks, they’re way more likely to perform proficiently.

Clarifying the reasons behind a change, with as much transparency as possible, is central to achieving compliance and cooperation.

If a company is transitioning to agile, for example, then it helps for employees to understand how the current system just didn’t cut it, as well as an explanation for how the new system should correct for these flaws.

When employees embrace the “why,” then they are more willing to accept the change.

Talk and Listen

2. Talk and Listen

As we’ve all experienced, when communication is limited mostly to emails, a whole lot gets lost in translation. The tone can be misunderstood, and it’s impossible to tell how the recipient receives the information.

Face-to-face communication has become a rare commodity these days, but as it turns out there’s really no substitution for it. All non-verbal communication comes across when people speak in-person. You recognize facial cues, and hear tone and voice inflection.

When making a big change, communicate 1:1 with employees, and then listen to their response. This allows for every perspective to be heard and alerts management to concerns and anxieties.

Written correspondence has a place, but when communicating major organizational transitions, it’s best used as a follow-up.

3. What’s in it for Me?

Leaders, clearly, are hugely invested in the success of their company. In order to navigate a big change, however, they also need to see the scenario from the employees’ point of view

Many employees, particularly Millennials and Generation Z, see their job as an opportunity to build a skill set and a personal brand. Even when they understand how a change benefits the company, this doesn’t entirely motivate them to get on board. Their loyalty, that is to say, is more to themselves than to the company.

This perhaps represents a kind of “enlightened self-interest,” as it’s important to look out for our own benefit and well-being. This is simply part of our nature. And so a leader needn’t condemn this tendency, but rather embrace it.

When rolling out a transition, communicate clearly how the change benefits individuals. Will learning a new software build their skills set and so help their career? Sure it will.

Clarifying the personal payoff helps bridge the motivation gap.

4. Embrace the Contrarian

When a company encounters outspoken, active resistance to change, the inclination is to silence it. Maybe this means excluding “difficult” people from meetings, or simply ignoring any dissident voices.

A healthy, transparent workplace, however, allows for the expression of all points of view. It welcomes debate and criticism and actively works through it.

Listening to dissident voices may well in fact help the organization. The person who’s voicing concerns sees things from a different point of view, and so hearing them out is tantamount to risk mitigation.

When an organization goes through change, it’s important to allow for open exchanges, and to actively listen to resistance, ask questions, and let anyone who wants to bring up criticism feel safe doing so. This benefits not only the employees, but the organization as well.

5. Monitor the Change Saturation Meter

Even when a team understands the reason for the change and is aligned to the vision, there is still a threshold for the amount of change it can handle.

If people are too overwhelmed by new processes or information, it generates apathy. This could lead to a mass exodus, where people collectively throw in the towel and move on.

In order to avoid this sort of disastrous pitfall, leadership must stage the rollout of a transition. This entails managers regularly checking the temperature of the work environment to gauge how things are going.

Troubleshooting includes active listening, as well as listening to what people aren’t saying. Is there a lack of camaraderie in the break room? Or decreased contribution in meetings? These both may be indications of passive resistance.

6. Cushion the Most Impacted Stakeholders

While drafting a plan for a major company overhaul, leadership can’t look at the organization as a monolith.

Big changes impact various departments and employees differently. Some are hardly impacted at all, while others have their entire routine upended.

Good leaders are highly aware of which employees and departments are affected the most. Providing these groups additional training, support, guidance and incentives helps to mitigate resistance and ease everyone through the process.

Enkindle Intrinsic Motivation

7. Enkindle Intrinsic Motivation

“It’s hard to hold someone accountable to a decision that they did not make,” says transformation consultant Pam Marmon.

Rather than being told what to do from leaders on high, people are more amenable to change when they feel as though they’ve played a part in the process. They want the freedom to be innovative.

Creating this freedom and internal motivation requires strategy. In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink outlines three central components to intrinsic motivation:

  1. Purpose: This means giving a team an aspirational goal to work toward.
  2. Mastery: This means expanding knowledge and developing new skills.
  3. Autonomy: This allows a team to be self-determined and plot its own course.

Cultivating teams with these qualities makes them feel like they’re helping to bring about the change. They are more aligned to the overall vision.

Of course this is a delicate balance, as the big tension of any change is allowing for autonomy, while at the same time steering the company in the direction the leaders feel it needs to go.

8. Align on the Vision

Change is about creating a new system within an organization, or introducing new methods for employees to interact and work together.

Before implementation, the entire company should understand the overall objective, as well as the specific changes in their day-to-day.

Aligning on this vision is accomplished most easily with an all-hands meeting, where the change is communicated in a few simple statements.

Coming up with a message for presenting and framing the change is key. When people hear “change” they synonymously hear “hard.” When it’s rather framed as an opportunity, this generates an exploratory attitude, and genuine interest in the endeavor. Passing out swag helps to further impress the vision.

Next, the leader implements processes to guide everyone through the transition phase.

A good process starts with leadership. Not only do the leaders model the change, but they also monitor performance and reactions across their department. Listening for feedback plays a part as well.

9. Harness the Middle Managers

Company culture in every organization is trickle-down, for sure. A manager who wants to facilitate a transformation needs to embody the change.

For example, when a team makes an agile transformation the leaders must demonstrate agile principles themselves. They discuss big issues with the team before making a decision, converse with each other face-to-face daily, and regularly take time to reflect.

Identifying the key influencers and managers, and getting them on board is instrumental to making a change.

When charismatic and well-liked managers model the new behavior, and encourage others to do so, then you’ve gotten the boulder to the top of the mountain, and it’s downhill from there.

Change the Culture

10. Change the Culture

Systemic problems in a work culture can pose huge challenges to a transition effort.

For example, a work environment with many rules and protocols generates distrust of leadership. A bureaucratic organization usually means that work performance is slow, and there’s always a ton of backlog.

When implementing a change, a company starts by evaluating its culture with complete honesty. It’s necessary to identify tendencies that would make a transformation unduly difficult.

If an impediment is found, the next task is to set about changing it. This is a slow process, as cultural habits are usually ingrained and cemented into a workplace. However, with a systematic approach, it is possible. Here are three steps to facilitate a culture shift:

  1. Establish Clarity

    First, it’s important to make sure everyone understands why a change is happening. Maybe you’re expanding the workplace to encourage more collaboration.

    Then, lay out the practicalities. Make sure everyone understands the new protocol around collaborative spaces versus work spaces and what not.

  2. Demonstrate Consistently

    When everyone understands the new system or protocol, it’s time to start implementing it. By following the plan you lay out for the team, grooves start to develop and new behaviors become habitual.

    It’s important for the leader to model behavior at this point. If the leader says one thing then does something else, it completely derails the initiative.

  3. Celebrate!

    A final step to making a cultural change is providing incentives for work performance and celebrating milestones reached. Appreciating employees for everything they do is central to creating a healthy company culture.

    Changing a culture won’t happen overnight, but with diligent effort, it is possible.

    In sum, in order to overcome resistance to change, leadership must anticipate it. Bringing the organization successfully through a transition means having a plan for assuaging and mitigating any tension and reluctance within the team.


Change is part of any successful organization. At some point, everyone faces unavoidable pressure to make a change. Sometimes this has to do with changes in the market, other times it’s about keeping up with competitors, or else it has to do with changes in the employee landscape.

At the same time, people push back on the change. It’s much easier to remain with the known and the familiar. Regardless of whether you’re handling a merger or acquisition, or streamlining processes, you will encounter resistance.

Making a transition in an organization needn’t be a Sisyphean effort, however. In order to overcome resistance, it’s necessary to anticipate it. People resist in various ways, and for various reasons, and so an organization needs to understand its culture and employees in order to mitigate the resistance. It’s good to have a plan going in and to know what types of resistance to expect.

Sometimes, systemic problems in the company cause resistance, and in this instance it’s necessary to adjust the company culture.

Change is hard. The dust will be unsettled for some time, and you have to accept that it’s just the way things are. But with a good strategy, it won’t be that way for long.

If you’re really looking to have a feather in your cap, then navigating your organization successfully through a huge transition will certainly be your pièce de résistance!

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