Employee Resistance to Organizational Change
by Albert F. Bolognese

edited 11/19/18

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In today's economy, change is all-pervasive in organizations. It happens continuously, and often at rapid speed. Because change has become an everyday part of organizational dynamics, employees who resist change can actually cripple an organization.

Resistance is an inevitable response to any major change. Individuals naturally rush to defend the status quo if they feel their security or status are threatened. Folger & Skarlicki (1999) claim that "organizational change can generate skepticism and resistance in employees, making it sometimes difficult or impossible to implement organizational improvements" (p. 25).

If management does not understand, accept and make an effort to work with resistance, it can undermine even the most well-intentioned and well-conceived change efforts. Coetsee (1999) states "any management's ability to achieve maximum benefits from change depends in part of how effectively they create and maintain a climate that minimizes resistant behavior and encourages acceptance and support" (p. 205).

Resistance Defined

In order to understand the concept of employee resistance, it is critical to define what is meant by the term resistance. Alvin Zander (1950) an early researcher on the subject, defined resistance to change as "behavior which is intended to protect an individual from the effects of real or imagined change" (cited in Dent & Goldberg, 1999, p. 34). Zaltman & Duncan (1977) define resistance as "any conduct that serves to maintain the status quo in the face of pressure to alter the status quo" (cited in Bradley, 2000, p. 76). In the view of Folger & Skarlicki (1999) resistance is defined as "employee behavior that seeks to challenge, disrupt, or invert prevailing assumptions, discourses, and power relations" (p. 36).

Piderit (2000) believes that the definition of the term resistance must incorporate a much broader scope. She states that "a review of past empirical research reveals three different emphases in conceptualizations of resistance: as a cognitive state, as an emotional state, and as a behavior" (p. 784).

The notion that employee resistance can be overcome cognitively suggests that negative thoughts or beliefs about the change exist. Piderit sites, "Watson (1982) who suggests that what is often labeled as resistance is, in fact, only reluctance. Armenakis, Harris, and Mossholder (1993) define resistance in behavioral terms but suggest that another state precedes it: is a cognitive state they call (un)-readiness" (2000, p. 785).

Others attempt to define employee resistance based on the emotional factors exhibited as a result of organizational change. From their early study, Coch and French (1948) acknowledged aggression and frustration in employees as the emotional factors that caused undesirable behaviors and resistance to change. Argyris and Schon (1974, 1978) noted that resistance to change is a defense mechanism caused by frustration and anxiety (Piderit, 2000).

The final aspect of Piderit's conceptualization focuses on individual behavior in an attempt to define employee resistance to change. She cites Brower and Abolafia (1995) who define resistance as a particular kind of action or inaction. Ashforth and Mael (1998) define resistance as intentional acts of commission (defiance) or omission. Shapiro, Lweicki, and Devine (1995) suggest that willingness to deceive authorities constitutes resistance to change (2000).

Piderit (2000) claims that: although these conceptualizations of overlap somewhat, they diverge in important ways. Finding a way to bring together these varying emphases should deepen our understanding of how employees respond to proposed organizational changes. Each of these three conceptualizations of resistance - as a behavior, an emotion, or a belief - has merit and represents an important part of our experience of response to change. Thus, any definition focusing on one view at the expense of the others seems incomplete (p. 785).

According to Dent & Goldberg (1999), individuals aren't really resisting the change, but rather they may be resisting the loss of status, loss of pay, or loss of comfort. They claim that, "it is time that we dispense with the phrase resistance to change and find a more useful and appropriate models for describing what the phrase has come to mean - employees are not wholeheartedly embracing a change that management wants to implement" (p. 26).

Early Research

In the 1940's, social psychologist Kurt Lewin first introduced the idea of managing and removing "resistance" to proposed changes occurring within organizations. His early work focused on the aspects of individual behavior that must be addressed in order to bring about effective organizational change.

Morgan (1997) states that: Lewin suggested that any potential change is resisted by forces in the opposite direction. The idea is similar to the dialectical principle that everything generates its opposite. But within Lewin's framework, the forces tend to be external to the change, holding situations in states of dynamic equilibrium. His solution was to advocate that successful change rests in "unfreezing" an established equilibrium by enhancing the forces driving change, or by reducing or removing resisting forces, and then "refreezing" in a new equilibrium state (p. 294). sistance 5

The first known published reference to research on resistance to change in organizations was a 1948 study conducted by Lester Coch and John R. P. French entitled, "Overcoming Resistance to Change." Their research, which generated a large body of work on the importance of employee involvement in decision making, was conducted at the Harwood Manufacturing Company, a pajama factory located in Virginia. This study focused on the main questions (1) Why do people resist change so strongly? and (2) What can be done to overcome this resistance? (Dent & Goldberg, 1999).

In 1950, Alvin Zander wrote, "Resistance to Change-Its Analysis and Prevention." His article made an early distinction between the symptoms of resistance, like hostility or poor effort, and the underlying causes for the behavior. Dent & Goldberg (1999) state, "Rather than providing a systems model, Zander equates resistance in organizations to that of a psychotherapist and a patient. His primary advice for practicing managers is to know what the resistance means so that they may reduce it by working on the causes rather than the symptoms" (p. 33).

Zander, who was a close colleague of Kurt Lewin and leaned heavily on his work, offered six primary reasons for resistance to surface. (1). If the nature of the change is not made clear to the people who are going to be influenced by the change. (2). If the change is open to a wide variety of interpretations. (3). If those influenced feel strong forces deterring them from changing. (4). If the people influenced by the change have pressure put on them to make it instead of having a say in the nature or the direction of the change. (5). If the change is made on personal grounds. (6). If the change ignores the already established institutions in the group (cited in Dent & Goldberg, 1999, p. 33).

The Nature and Causes of Resistance

Symptoms are the specific behaviors individuals exhibit when they are resistant to change. According to Hultman (1995), it is important to distinguish between the symptoms of resistance to change, and the causes behind it. These behaviors fall into two categories -- active-resistance or passive-resistance. Symptoms of active-resistance include finding fault, ridiculing, appealing to fear, and manipulating. Passive-resistance symptoms include agreeing verbally but not following through, feigning ignorance and withholding information.

Hultman (1995) adds, "there is always the danger of identifying a symptom of resistance when you are really looking for its cause. To diagnose the causes, we must understand a person's state of mind. The most important factors that go into a person's state of mind are his or her facts, beliefs, feeling, and values" (p. 16).

The list of reasons why individuals might be resistance to organizational change has grown since Zander's initial six published in 1950. It is safe to assume that any attempts to cover all of them would produce volumes of literature. However, there are several that are quite common and prevalent, which help provide a solid basis to understanding the concept.

Employees resist change because they have to learn something new. In many case there is not a disagreement with the benefits of the new process, but rather a fear of the unknown future and about their ability to adapt to it. de Jager (2001) argues, 'Most people are reluctant to leave the familiar behind. We are all suspicious about the unfamiliar; we are naturally concerned about how we will get from the old to the new, especially if it involves learning something new and risking failure" (p. 24).

Low tolerance for change is defined as the fear that one will not be able to develop new skills and behaviors that are required in a new work setting. According to Kotter & Schlesinger (1979), if an employee has a low tolerance for change, the increased ambiguity that results as a result of having to perform their job differently would likely cause a resistance to the new way of doing things. An employee may understand that a change is needed, but may be emotionally unable to make the transition and resist for reasons they may not consciously understand.

Folger & Skarlicki (1995) investigated resistance to change as a response to the treatment employees receive in the change process. Specifically they focuses on resentment-based resistance -reactions by disgruntled employees regarding the perceived unfairness of the change. They claim that "resent-based resistance behaviors, which can range from subtle acts of noncooperation to industrial sabotage, are often seen by the perpetrators as subjectively justifiable - a way to "get even" for perceived mistreatment and a way for employees to exercise their power to restore perceived injustice" (p. 36).

Paul Strebel (1996), professor and director of the Change Program for international managers at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), attributes resistance as a violation of "personal compacts" management has with their employees. Personal compacts are the essence of the relationship between employees and organizations defined by reciprocal obligations and mutual commitments that are both stated and implied. Any change initiatives proposed by the organization would alter their current terms.

Personal compacts are comprised of formal, psychological, and social dimensions. The formal dimension is the most familiar. It is the aspect of the relationship that addresses the basic tasks and performance requirements of the job, and is defined by job descriptions, employee contracts, and performance agreements. Management, in return, agrees to supply the employee the resources needed to perform their job. The psychological dimension address aspects of the employment relationship that incorporate the elements of mutual trust, loyalty and commitment. The social dimension of the personal compact deals with organizational culture, which encompasses, mission statement, values, ethics and business practices.

Strebel points out that when these personal compacts are disrupted it upsets the balance, and increases the likelihood of resistance. He suggests that management view how change looks from the employees perspective, and to examine the terms of the personal compacts currently in place. 'Unless manages define new terms and persuade employees to accept them, it is unrealistic for managers to expect employees to fully buy into changes that alter the status quo" (p. 87).

Kegan & Lahey (2001) describe a psychological dynamic called a "competing commitment" as the real reason for employee resistance to organizational change. The change is not challenged, but rather is it resisted, or not implemented at all because the employee faces additional issue or concerns related to the change. When an employee's hidden competing commitment is uncovered, "behavior that seems irrational and ineffective suddenly becomes stunningly sensible and masterful - but unfortunately, on behalf of a goal that conflicts with what you and even the employee are trying to achieve" (p. 85).

Competing commitments should not be viewed as a weakness, but as a version of self-protection. If these competing commitments are a form of self-protection, then what are employees protecting themselves from? Kegan & Lahey believe the answer usually lies in what they call "big assumptions" - deeply rooted beliefs people have about themselves and the world around them. Many rarely realize they hold big assumptions because they are woven into the very fabric of people's existence, and thus they accept them as reality. "rhese assumptions put an order to the world and at the same time suggest ways in which the world can go out of order. Competing commitments arise from these assumptions, driving behaviors unwittingly designed to keep the picture intact" (p. 88).

Positive Resistance

Managers often perceive resistance negatively, and employees who resist are viewed as disobedient and obstacles the organization must overcome in order to achieve the new goals. However in certain instances, employee resistance may play a positive and useful role in organizational change. Insightful and well-intended debate, criticism, or disagreement do not necessarily equate to negative resistance, but rather may be intended to produce better understanding as well as additional options and solutions. de Jager (2001) claims, "the idea that anyone who questions the need for change has an attitude problem is simply wrong, not only because it discounts past achievements, but also because it makes us vulnerable to indiscriminate and ill-advised change' (p. 25).

Piderit (2000) points out that what some managers may perceive as disrespectful or unfounded resistance to change might be motivated by an individual's ethical principles or by their desire to protect what they feel is the best interests of the organization. Employee resistance may force management to rethink or reevaluate a proposed change initiative. (See, What is Productivity? )

It also can act as a as a gateway or filter, which can help organizations select from all possible changes the one that is most appropriate to the current situation. According to de Jager (2001), "resistance is simply a very effective, very powerful, very useful survival mechanism' ' (p. 26).

Folger & Skarlicki (1999) claim "that not all interventions are appropriate as implemented -the organization might be changing the wrong thing or doing it wrong. Just as conflict can sometimes be used constructively for change, legitimate resistance might bring about additional organizational change" (p. 37).

Transition and Transitional Phenomena

The process of change is simply moving from the current way of doing things to a new and different way of doing things. Bridges (1991) believes that it isn't the actual change that individuals resist, but rather the transition that must be made to accommodate the change. He states, "change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal. Unless transition occurs, change will not work" (p. 3-4).

Morgan (1997) suggests that an understanding of the theory of transitional phenomena would provide valuable insight into organizational change, and why it might be met with employee resistance. This theory "suggests that change will occur spontaneously only when people are prepared to relinquish what they hold dear for the purpose of acquiring something new or can find ways of carrying what they value in the old into the new" (p. 238).

In the event that it does not exist naturally, it may be necessary for the organization to create transitional phenomena. This would help in the "letting go" of the current way and moving forward to the new way. Morgan adds, bringing about organization change "can rarely be done effectively by "selling" or imposing a "change package," an ideology or a set of techniques. The theory of transitional phenomena suggests that in situations of voluntary change the person doing the changing must be in control of the process" (p. 238).

Leon Coetsee (1999) attempts to explain the nature of resistance to change through a continuum model. He states that, "in organizational development literature, acceptance of change (commitment) and rejection of change (resistance) are typically treated as separate, unrelated phenomena7' (p. 204). Through his model, Coetsee argues that they are closely linked in the sense that they represent a polarity, with each being the far end of the continuum. Moving from resistance to commitment is done through sequential phases contained within the continuum.


Employee resistance to change is a complex issue facing management in the complex and ever-evolving organization of today. The process of change is ubiquitous, and employee resistance has been identified as a critically important contributor to the failure of many well-intend and well-conceived efforts to initiate change within the organization.

In many cases, vast amounts of resources are expended by organizations to adjust employees to a new way of achieving desired goals. The natural propensity for individuals to "defend the status quo" presents a set of challenges that management must overcome in order to bring about desired change. Management must also seriously take into account and consider the myriad of problems that may result if they are not responsive to issues of resistance in the workplace.

In order to facilitate a smooth transition from the old to the new, organizations must be competent in effective change management. The process of change management consists of getting of those involved and affected to accept the introduced changes as well as manage any resistance to them.

This investigation stresses that change usually involves an individual's psyche, so there are no concrete textbook answers and solutions to the problem. Since each individual is different, their perceptions and reasons for resisting are also different. As a result, researchers and scholars can theorize on how to lessen or remove employee resistance to change, but in the final analysis the only way to do so effectively is to understand the unique circumstances within each individual that is causing their particular resistance.


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Dent, E. & Goldberg, S. (1999, March). Challenging "resistance to change." Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 25-41.

Folger, R. & Skarlicki, D. (1999). Unfairness and resistance to change: hardship as mistreatment, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 35-50.

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Strebel, P. (1996, May/Jun). Why do employees resist change? Harvard Business Review 86-92.