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Why Do We Resist? Categorizing the Different Types of Resistance

Ah yes, an age old question, why do people resist change? A simple question that does not have a simple response. Is it because we are creatures of habit or is it that we crave consistency over correctness? Perhaps it is because we as individuals, as well as organizations desire stability and constancy and that change just makes us plain uncomfortable? Whatever the driver, and there are many, I have seen many organizations adjust their behavior to conform to organizational norms, regardless of how inefficient or ineffective those business processes may be.

Why do people resist change? Well, change:

  • Threatens stability and status – (e.g., People have built their careers around a specific expertise or area which provides job security and commands respect)
  • Endangers power – (e.g., People have built a team, and have a budget, that could be re-structured)
  • Creates anxiety – (e.g., When change occurs, people get anxious and have a tendency to lose focus)

Resistance is not “all bad.” There are some very positive aspects of resistance which should not be overlooked, including:

  • Resistance may indicate that an employee is inquisitive and engaged in the process
  • It may force the project team to re-visit and validate assumptions
  • It presents an early indicator of the potential feasibility of the project or specific issue within the project

I have worked on several large-scale change initiatives with municipalities and an important step in the change process involves conducting interviews with impacted employees and categorizing them into one of the three categories discussed below.

  • Group 1- Open to Change
  • Group 2- Uncertain about Change
  • Group 3- Strong Resistors of Change

These interviews should be conducted by the Change Management Champions (CMC) after the impacted employees have been identified (please see https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/creating-the-secret-sauce?xg_source=activity)

After the interviews are concluded the CMCs should meet and categorize all the impacted employees into the groups using the suggested parameters listed below.

Group 1 – Open to Change. This groups is open to change and will be openly supportive of the change effort. You will be engaging their support and visible participation to help move the change forward. Each employee in the group can become a strong and active advocate for change, and can influence conversations with other employees. Typically these are newer staff, or staff with exposure to other ways of doing things. They are the biggest supporters and generally compose about 10% of impacted staff.

Group 2 – Uncertain about Change. These employees make up the majority of employees. In some organizations, this can be in the range of 70% of the staff. These are the “middle of the road” employees that require a lot of time and attention. The success of the change effort, and the manner in which this group responds to the change, will depend largely on how effectively the change is managed. Frequently, the overall change management success hinges on this group. When I was working in Cleveland, the CMCs developed a lot of communication vehicles that specifically targeted this group. These included in-person meetings, emails, and one-on-one sessions with executive sponsors and project team personnel. Due to this investment, many of these employees were successfully transitioned into Group 1.

Group 3 – Strong Resistors of Change. These employees may never change and most certainly will not initially support change within the organization. Sometimes they could be planning an exit to another department or even retirement. Other times, the concept of change scares them so much that the only reaction they are capable of is to resist. Generally 10% of the organization or less falls into this category. The CMC focus should be on managing rather than converting these employees. At a minimum, strategies and tactics need to be put in place to minimize the adverse impact they could have on the project. In Santa Ana, we had a challenging resistor who could have sabotaged the project. We attempted multiple communication vehicles to address this situation, but in the end an in-person meeting with an elected official helped stabilize this individual and prevented him from negatively influencing the project. This intervention helped the project team to move forward and enabled the CMC to focus on other Group 2 employees.

When deploying enterprise-wide projects it can be expected that employees will exhibit characteristics from each of these groups. In light of this, each of these groups requires different approaches when addressing resistance and the municipalities should develop strategies that address the various needs of these employees. Tune in next week when we discuss how to Identify Types of Resistors and how to develop appropriate strategies to address their concerns.

I close with the following questions:

1 – Can you discuss approaches you have used to categorize employees based on previous change initiatives?

2 – What tactics have you used to address or utilize personnel based on their resistance grouping?

Check out my previous five Change Management Blogs at:

Change Happens—How Do You Manage It?


The Impact of Ignoring Change


Getting it Right: Critical Success Factors for Change Management Initiatives, Part 1


Getting it Right: Critical Success Factors for Change Management Initiatives, Part 2


Creating the Secret Sauce – Selecting Change Management Champions


Spencer Stern specializes in assessing the business and process impact of new technology-based solutions, ranging from enterprise-wide software systems to wireless communications networks. In 2008 he launched Stern Consulting where he continues to focus on assessing the financial impact of large-scale municipal strategic implementations. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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Victoria A. Runkle

Excellent. Working on significant change issues — resiliency issues – in my department. I will forward this on to my management staff.