Resistance to Change

Learning Objectives

The learning objectives of this chapter are:

  • • Resistance to Change
  • • Reasons for Resistance to Change
  • • Methods to Overcome Resistance to Change
  • • Change Failures

Resistance to Change

Change is an essential activity within an organization seeking to maintain a competitive edge over other organizations, as well as maintaining the necessary flexibility during emergencies. While change may be necessary for a successful organization to adapt, survive, and flourish, it is usually difficult and stressful to achieve. Resistance to change is common because it requires people to accept the change from both a personal and professional perspective. It is not unusual for a person to fear being judged harshly or unfairly during a change period within an organization. This fear may result from new business strategies, new approaches to address existing or potential concerns, proposed improvements or thought processes, and performance expectations, creating a level of stress that may have implications at work and home.

Resistance to change is a complex and multifaceted challenge to institutional change initiatives. Resistance may occur at any level of the organization and result from different reasons relative to the individual, organizational employee(s) (e.g., Blank, 1990; Agocs, 1997; Lane, McCormack, & Richardson, 2013). Organization-wide resistance may occur from the institutional level (Agocs, 1997), or there may be resistance because of an implementation-related issue associated with the manager (Gilley, Gilley, & McMillan, 2009). Poor communication or a lack of information may create severe problems and result in resistance to change through organizational uncertainty (Kennedy, 2011). There is also a possibility that senior management leaders will be resistant to the change because of the unknown risk associated with the change (Lane et al., 2013). However, failures associated with a change initiative are typically the result of human actions, or the lack thereof, and not by technical issues (Palmer, 2004).

Understanding the methods for overcoming resistance to change is valuable to promote the change initiative's more effective implementation. Addressing the specifics of overcoming resistance to change should be of great interest to practitioners seeking direct methods to accomplish the desired goal. The practical application of these methods should assist in real-world implementation toward affecting resistance to change. In particular, the disciplines of business, security, emergency, and disaster management will benefit from the knowledge presented herein. These disciplines seek improvements in implementing various initiatives to achieve risk management, emergency preparedness, or organizational effectiveness. An improved understanding of the methods for overcoming resistance to change should greatly help address change resistance within an organization.

Modern organizations routinely encounter dynamic environmental changes requiring a change from the organization to ensure survivability (Avey, Wernsing, & Luthans, 2008; Holt, Dorey, Bailey, & Low, 2009). With change also comes the potential for resistance.

Reasons for Resistance to Change

As noted by Coughlan and Rashford (2006), the trust of management and those leading the change initiative is of critical concern. Cynicism may result from mistrust of leadership, change agents, and even themselves creating a form of resistance to the change (Kennedy, 2011); this is more of organizational cancer than just a single project issue and may have implications for the larger organization. There is a difference between skepticism in the change initiative (resistance to the actual change), and a cynical view of leadership/management, resulting in resistance to the change (Stanley, Meyer, & Topolnytsky, 2005). Distrust of management is an inherent problem within the organization and may be reflected in perceptions of projects. Apart from the change initiative, the trust issue must be resolved for the organization to be effective.

It is also necessary to understand that resistance to change may occur at different levels of the organization, and therefore should be addressed at different levels. An organization-wide concern requires a significant effort that has repercussions throughout the organization. For instance, the CEO may have to gather the entire organization and explain or discuss the problem to impart a powerful message fully. The department leader may address a department-level resistance concern and an individual-level issue addressed by a supervisor.

The exchange of information between organizational members may support or destroy a change initiative; the power of communication cannot be understated. Failure on the part of the leader to effectively communicate and motivate organizational members is a common reason for change initiatives to fail through resistance on the part of disillusioned employees (Gilley et al., 2009). A self-perpetuating cycle of resistance may follow because of reinforcement in beliefs of failure (Holt et al., 2009). Again, communication is the crux of the issue and must be resolved before a change initiative can be successful.

Organizational change and any associated resistance are not necessarily constant or uniform in rationale. Resistance may come from various levels of the organization and may be the result of various concerns of organizational members (e.g., Blank, 1990; Agocs, 1997; Lane, McCormack, & Richardson, 2013). Resistance to change may come from institutional resistance to change (Agocs, 1997), poor implementation of the change initiative by the project/program manager (Gilley, Gilley, & McMillan, 2009), from a sense of general organizational uncertainty about the change (Kennedy, 2011), or resistance by senior leadership to avoid the unknown risk of potential opportunity (Lane et al., 2013).

Palmer (2004) confirmed that change failures are caused by human actions or lack of action, and not by technical issues. Therefore, resistance to change may occur throughout an organization with the members of the organization at the heart of the issue. General uncertainty about a change initiative may result from cynicism, dubious trust of leadership, and the employee's lack of confidence in each other (Kennedy, 2011). Uncertainty is a more pervasive issue within the organization and is a serious problem beyond the current change initiative.

Stanley, Meyer, and Topolnytsky (2005) identify the difference between skeptical resistance to proposed change (doubt in the project) and cynical resistance to the change (doubt or mistrust in management). Effective organizational communication is a crucial component of resistance. However, there is a subjective nature to a cynicism that may begin to influence leadership through continual change implementation failure and should be addressed to prevent worsening issues (Stanley et al., 2005). Nord and Jermier (1994) conclude that a person may resist change from a healthy sense of psychological protection against the unknown aspects of the proposed change. This is another aspect of resistance to change that must be addressed when seeking to overcome the problem.

According to Gilley et al. (2009), many change initiatives fail because the person leading the change fails to properly motivate and communicate with the organizational employers, thereby facilitating resistance to change and the failure of the initiative. Failure of this sort is also identified by Holt et al. (2009) in the discussion of the failure to properly implement the change, followed by a cycle of failure; the failure is reinforced and perpetuated by further inability to initiate the change successfully. Change initiatives are not necessarily doomed to failure.

Individual involvement throughout the organization affects change. Self-leadership is the ability of an individual to generate the necessary self-motivation and self-direction to achieve goals and is more than just avoiding violations of external standards; it is the internalization of being the decision-maker of the rationale for the standards, thereby having a significant influence on any resistance to change (Neck, 1996). As discussed earlier, individuals within organizations have central roles to play in deciding the issue of resisting change.

A proposed change initiative may be resisted by senior leadership because the change creates an unknown variable or situation, and leadership may prefer to deal with issues that are known quantities (Lane et al., 2013). Resistance is a fundamental issue of any project that must be addressed at the beginning of the project. Failure to gain management support will doom the project to failure (Leflar & Siegel, 2013).

 
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