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Dealing with resistance to change


November 11, 2022

Bear Grylls recently gave an interview about his new book “Mind Fuel” which offers ways to strengthen your mental resilience. Discussing how so many people have struggled with the changes of the past few years and quoted this old saying:

The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet nappy.

This adage will resonate with anyone who has tried to lead change in an organisation.

Whether the change is the result of a global pandemic, or simply due to an evolving business strategy, there will inevitably be some resistance to deal with.

How well you pre-empt and manage that resistance can make all the difference to the success of your change.

Why do people resist change?

The change curve

Our understanding of how people deal with change took a big leap forward in 1969 when Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her research into the psychological states which terminally ill patients go through. This is often summarised by a graph showing the process of adjustment.

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve Source: The EKR Foundation

Later research identified that individuals in organisations go through a similar process when there is a change, although with less trauma than the terminally ill.

Since then, many variations on this curve have been modelled, however the same principle of a staged process is consistent in all of them.

How the change curve applies to organisations

As a leader implementing change it’s important to understand the process of change. Everyone affected by the change will need to go through each step in the change curve to fully process and accept the change. If you try to force people to move on too quickly, or skip a stage, you will meet resistance.

You also need to remember that, by the time you’re ready to communicate the change to your people, you and your management team are probably a good way along the curve. However, your teams will be just starting at the beginning and will need time to catch up to your position.

Not everyone will go through this curve in the same way or at the same pace. This is where psychometric tools, such as Insights Discovery, can be invaluable in anticipating how each individual in your team will respond to change. This gives you the opportunity to better understand each person’s journey and tailor your approach to align to their natural preferences.

Anxious employee at work

It’s also important to keep in mind that people don’t always travel “one way” along the curve. Some people will loop back and repeat a particular stage – for example they may start to feel more positive about a change, then something happens and they fall back into the depression phase.

4 reasons to resist change

In 1979 Kotter and Schelsinger proposed four reasons why people resist changes. Their theory is that identifying the root cause of this conflict makes the path to resolving it much clearer.

1. Self-interest

They think that the change will cause them to lose something that’s of value to them. This could be something tangible such as a job or level of income. Or it could be more subjective, such as a perceived loss of status.

2. Misunderstanding and lack of trust

Resistance can be caused by a simple misunderstanding about what the change consists of, or the costs/benefits involved.

This type of resistance is heightened when there’s a lack of trust in the organisation. People who don’t trust their leaders will be far more analytical and critical about a proposed change.

3. Different assessments

It’s not uncommon for people to evaluate the benefits or costs of a change differently to the organisation’s leadership.

This may be purely due to poor communication about the change, but it could be a more fundamental issue: The leadership team having a different set of information to their people and potentially making a poor decision as a result.

4. Low tolerance for change

Everyone has a limit to the amount of change they can tolerate, but some people will naturally find it easier adapt to a new situation than others.

Leaders need to keep in mind that, even if the change is of clear benefit to an individual (eg resulting in a promotion), they may still have negative feelings about it. Perhaps worrying about their ability to do the new role or what training they’ll receive. They may start to show signs of resisting the change without even being aware they’re doing so.

In organisations where changes have been poorly implemented before, and trust has been eroded, the overall tolerance for change may be lower as a result.

How to minimise resistance to change

When you have decided to make a change, planning how that change will happen in human terms, as well as practical terms, will help you to minimise resistance. Don’t expect to get rid of resistance altogether, that simply won’t be possible. But a well-managed change can ensure that it’s as smoothly implemented as it can be.

To manage change effectively, you need to create a balance between…

Controlling change

It’s important to have a clear end goal for your change, with suitable project management controls and monitoring in place.

However, you need to be careful that, as a leader, you don’t end up micro-managing. This will frustrate your people and stifle your ability to be flexible, experiment and take risks.

Leading change

Your organisation’s leadership need to be on-board with the change and be vocal in their support of it.

However, if the change is too forcefully driven by those in leadership, it can feel manipulative. People are likely to just comply because they’re being told to, rather than truly commit to the new status quo.

There are other “leaders” in your organisation who might not have this status bestowed by their job title, but certainly have the influence. People whose opinions are valued by their colleagues. You might consider some of these to be “trouble makers” however, if you can get them involved in the change process and on-board with the benefits of it, they can become your greatest advocates.

Being adaptable

Throughout the process of change you should be clear about the goal and the benefits of getting there. But you should be prepared to be flexible about the journey. Don’t create a roadmap and force everyone to stick to it rigidly; incorporate an element of flexibility.

A potential pitfall of this is that you spend too long looking at different options and, as a result, the change ends up being too little too late. Being adaptable needs to be balanced with the control and leadership elements.

Embracing conflict

From the outset you should make a conscious decision to consider any resistance to change to be useful. It’s an opportunity to better connect with your people, to take advantage of their experience and expertise, and perhaps achieve a better outcome as a result.

But you should ensure that this conflict doesn’t start to confuse people or cause frustrations. Otherwise you can start to lose sight of your goal and lose any momentum towards achieving it.

Which is why it’s so important to deal with resistance in the right way.

Planning for resistance to change

There are a few ways in which those managing change can prepare in advance for the resistance they might encounter.

Learn from the past

Look at the lessons learnt from previous projects. Hopefully these will have been formally documented, but if not go and speak to the people who were involved in that change – both leading it and affected by it – to get their insights.

You might even ask some of them to take roles in implementing your project so you can directly benefit from their experience.

Do a risk analysis

Consider the most likely reasons for resistance, write them down and determine what you will do to mitigate each risk and to deal with it, should it occur.

For example, if you’re implementing a restructure then you might list the following reasons for resistance:

  • Actual or imagined job losses
  • Concerns about being forced into a new role they don’t want to do
  • No longer working in the team they’re comfortable with
  • Inability to continue serving customers to a high standard

From your perspective you might believe some, or maybe all, the reasons for resisting are unfounded. But simply telling people that may not be sufficient to stop them worrying about it, particularly in the early stages of the change curve.

Get commitment from your leadership team

The last thing you need is a senior manager being challenged about a change and responding with “well I didn’t think it was a very good idea either”.

You need to take your leaders on this journey with you, give them time to go through their own change curve and deal with any of their issues first. Otherwise they may be too engulfed by their own emotional responses to support their teams adequately.

Make sure your managers have the right skillset

Your management team needs to have the tools and skills to deal with resistance to change.

This might be as simple as ensuring they have effective communication skills, focusing on listening and responding in an emotionally intelligent way.

Two office workers in conversation

They may also need more practical support, such as knowing what training will be delivered to their teams or having the flexibility to give people time off after a particularly intensive period of adaptation.

Plan your communications and listening opportunities

Your communications plan is key to delivering the right messages in the right way to your people, giving them time to reflect, and opportunities to raise concerns.

The plan should:

  • Be clear about the need for, and benefits of, the change, explaining how it fits into the wider business strategy. And be honest about the downsides, don’t sweep anything under the carpet just because it’s unpalatable.
  • Be equally clear about how you plan to achieve it, the role you want your people to play in this and how you will support them in doing this (eg through training or other forms of support).
  • Openly acknowledge your own feelings about the change. For example, changing a company name might be a positive step from a marketing point of view, but if you’ve worked there for 20 years you may well feel emotional about losing the old identity.
  • Include a timeline for your communications, starting them as early as possible and including frequent updates. Ensure that people have plenty of time to absorb the information and know when they will have opportunities to discuss the changes, either as a group or on an individual basis.
  • Take into account the need for 1:1 conversations and ensure that these are timed appropriately.
  • Ensure that people always know when their next update, or opportunity to discuss the changes, will be, so they don’t feel abandoned at any stage.
  • Consider how the tone of the communications should adapt as the organisation travels through the change curve. For example, you might start with a focus on consultative communications then, as the change starts to become more accepted, move to a more enthusiastic and buoyant tone to help build momentum and drive the change through to completion.

Involve potential resistors

Getting people involved in the decision making and implementation of the change can be an excellent way to manage their concerns in a more pre-emptive and proactive way.

You might, for example, include a mixture of those who will be most affected by the change and people who tend to be opinion leaders in your workforce.

Taking advantage of their expertise will help you ensure that you have all the information you need to implement the change successfully.

One downside to this is that the wider your level of involvement the longer it can take to make decisions and complete the change process. Think carefully about who will be involved, how, and during which stages of the project.

How to deal with resistance to change

However well you plan your change, there will always be an element of resistance. Don’t take it as a criticism of your plans, it’s simply a natural reaction that everyone has.

The extent of resistance will depend on the nature of the change and the culture within your organisation. For example, in highly unionised industries, where there’s a perceived gap between “management” and “staff”, you may experience more resistance to change than in a more naturally collaborative environment.

The key to dealing with this conflict is to build rapport and trust, so people feel they can openly discuss their concerns and can depend upon their management to make the right decisions for the right reasons.


“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Epictetus, Greek philosopher

Listening to the people who are affected by this change isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s absolutely essential.

These are the people who need to make the change work for you, so you need them to feel that they are part of the process, not being ignored by it.

And these are the people who will truly understand the effect of your changes on the day to day running of your organisation. If they feel that something is awry then this needs to be taken seriously and given due consideration.

You never know which complaint is actually going to turn out to be an invaluable piece of advice which makes the difference between success and failure, so always listen and don’t prejudge.

Listening also gives you an opportunity to understand the root cause of the resistance (self-interest, misunderstanding/lack of trust, different assessments or low tolerance to change). Without this level of understanding you will find it difficult to respond effectively.

Show you value their opinion

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This is an excellent opportunity to show your ability to act in a democratic leadership style.

When people raise an objection they need to feel that their voice has been heard, acknowledged and taken into account.

Empathising with them and asking them questions about their concern is a good first step. Spend time really understanding where they’re coming from and the root cause of their concerns, even if your gut reaction is to dismiss their view.

Next, repeat their concerns back to them, in your own words. This will demonstrate that you’ve not just heard them, but also understood them.

Finally, make it clear what you are going to do with this information. Valuing their opinion doesn’t mean you have to act on it, but if you can’t comply with their request then you at least should give them a clear explanation as to why that is.

If you need some time to go away and consider their views, then tell them this. But make sure that you do eventually go back to them with the final response or to negotiate a mutually acceptable outcome. Otherwise they will feel that you were just paying them lip service without any intention of considering their point of view.

Monitor and review

The process of monitoring and reviewing the project, and resistance to it, is not something that should be left until the end.

Regular review sessions should be held to check in on reactions from across the organisation, to understand collectively what stage on the change curve people are at, and to adapt plans to suit.

The coercive approach

In some situations, particularly where speed of change is essential, you may have to throw most of this advice out the window and simply impose the change on your people, adapting the coercive style of leadership.

This is risky approach and always unpopular, but sometimes there are simply no other options. The covid pandemic is a perfect example of this – there were no discussions about whether to work from home or in the office, people were simply told that with immediate effect they had to work from home.

In these cases, once the change has been imposed, it is still valuable to take the time to retrospectively support people through the change process. Perhaps through regular check-ins with your team, a bonus payment to go some way to compensating for the upheaval or finding a collaborative approach to adjusting to the new status quo.

Prepare your organisation to deal with change

Our bespoke people development programmes cover many aspects of change management, including:

  • Leadership development – either through group training or 1:1 executive coaching
  • Effective communication and influencing skills
  • Strategic planning for people development considerations within change projects

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