Resistance to Change

So you are thinking of leading a major change in your firm, government agency, academic department, professional society, or other group. Anticipate great resistance, at least initially, to the change you propose.

During the Renaissance, the Italian politician Nicolo Machiavelli (Machiavelli 1980) offered this sage advice about reaction to change: “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiators have the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.”

Note his mention of the initial “enmity” of many who oppose change contrasted with the only “lukewarm defenders” of change. Effecting change is difficult. Nevertheless, the leader in us wants change—we are dissatisfied with the present situation and can see a better one.

Why do many of us resist change? The possibility of change causes each of us to compare the way things are to the way things could be. We contrast the familiar and comfortable with the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I believe that most of us, at the cognitive level, can see and weigh the “pros” and “cons” of a proposed change, especially if thoughtfully presented.  However, at the emotional level, we fear how we are going to get from here to there. The unknown trip is scary and conditions at the destination are uncertain! In summary, when faced with change, we tend to revert to fear and other emotions, not reason.

Statements such as the following, which are adapted from Barker (1992), Carroll (2004), and Walesh (2012), reflect the tendency to react emotionally, in knee-jerk fashion, to a proposed change or even the suggestion to consider change. These are ways to douse change talk with water rather than fuel it with gasoline: 

  • We’ve always done it this way
  • It won’t work
  • That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard
  • We can’t do that
  • After you are here for awhile you will see why that cannot be done
  • We tried something similar and it did not work
  • Get real
  • We don’t know how
  • The boss won’t go for it
  • Impossible!
  • Let’s wait until next year or next semester or next…
  • Oh that it were that easy
  • Let’s wait for others to do it
  • If that were needed, someone would already have done it
  • That idea is outside of your area of responsibility

In addition to natural individual resistance to change, some organizational cultures resist specific kinds of change or, even more broadly, change in general. By culture, I mean the way things really work around here. As noted by Stephen E. Armstrong (2005), “culture wields great power over what people consider permissible and appropriate …The embedded beliefs, values, and behavior patterns carry tremendous weight. The culture sends its energy into every corner of the organization, influencing virtually everything.” Effecting change in some cultures is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Cited Sources

Armstrong, S. C. 2005. Engineering and Product Development Management: A Holistic Approach, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Barker, J. A. 1992. Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, Harper Business: New York, NY.

Carroll, J. 2004. “In An innovation Rut? Here Are Tip-Offs,” The Globe and Mail, November 12.

Machiavelli, N. 1980. The Prince, Translated by E.R.P. Vincent, New American Library: New York, NY. (Originally published in 1537.)

Walesh, S. G. 2012. Engineering Your Future: The Professional Practice of Engineering-Third Edition, Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ.

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