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Explore the Levels of Change Management

Managing Resistance to Desirable Change

Written by Tim Creasey

5 Mins


Prosci defines change management as the application of a structured process and set of tools for managing the people side of change to reach a desired outcome. But how often do we see change management and resistance management used synonymously? If your answer is "quite often" then you are not alone. While Prosci emphasizes that change management is composed of many tools, strategies and techniques for managing the people side of change, one of the primary plans developed through the Prosci 3-Phase Change Management Methodology is a resistance management plan. Because the reality is that resistance will be faced during any effort in which people must change something about the way they do work.

"We Want Change Because..."

Often, we think of resistance arising because employees are comfortable in the current state. But in some cases, the organization as a whole desires change. "We want change because..."

  •  "The current system is so broken and dysfunctional that it is negatively impacting our business operations, relationships with clients and customers, and/or supply chain processes."
  •  "The change is so great and comes with so many benefits, that we can't wait to leave the current state behind."

In these instances, according to the Prosci ADKAR Model for individual change, the awareness and desire are seemingly in place for moving out of the current state:

  • Awareness - According to the 2016 edition of Best Practices in Change Management, lack of awareness is most commonly the greatest contributor to employee resistance. Since the awareness of the need to change has already been established in the scenario above, the chances of this causing resistance are drastically lower.
  • Desire - Many change practitioners understand that desire to participate and engage in the change is another potentially strong barrier to change, since desire ultimately requires a personal choice and can be difficult to influence. Since these change scenarios are either very necessary or they offer great benefits to those impacted, the desire to participate practically establishes itself.

If this is the type of reaction you are experiencing, your change is in good shape right?

Well, what happens when, even with the awareness and desire seemingly in place, you are still faced with resistance? Resistance is the natural human reaction to any type of change, as it requires individuals to move from a current state where they are familiar and comfortable with processes and daily tasks, to an unfamiliar future state. Change is hard no matter how necessary or good the change may seem.

Examples of Desirable Changes

Even when resistance is accepted as the norm, it can still catch you off guard; especially when the change is perceived as desired by employees. In these situations when resistance is unexpected, yet still arises, we need to have an understanding of why it is happening so that we can determine what to do about it. Consider a few examples:

Change A - An organization is implementing a new email system because the current system is unreliable and employees are frequently receiving failure-to-send notices. Additionally, it is difficult for employees to access and navigate their email account away from the office, causing disruption in daily communications.

Change B - An organization is changing office locations. The current building where the company is located is old and has many structural problems that affect the employees' day-to-day activities. The company will relocate to a building that is nearby and has been recently renovated.

Change C - An organization is implementing a new benefits package that offers broader healthcare coverage and higher bonus incentives.

In each of these examples, either the change has such excellent benefits for those impacted that resistance is expected to be minimal or nonexistent (Change C), or the current way of doing things is so broken that employees are eager and excited to move to the future state (Changes A & B).

Steps for Addressing Resistance to a Desirable Change

Even though the changes introduced above are a major improvement from the current state or the future state is very beneficial for employees, resistance still arises. If you were managing any one of these changes, how could you get to the bottom of what is happening, or where this resistance is coming from and why? And, just as important, what would you do about it to manage the unexpected resistance and keep the change on track?

  1. Establish frameworks: There are two principles to consider: a) A desirable change doesn't mean everyone will desire it, and b) Resistance does not always mean there is a lack of desire. You can use these different frameworks to understand resistance so that you can manage it more effectively.
  2. Conduct root-cause analysis: There are personal and organizational contexts to change that can influence the speed of adoption, ultimate utilization and proficiency at a change on an individual level. With the frameworks from Step 1 in mind, begin to conduct analysis and perform assessments to identify and understand the root causes of resistance. Let's take a closer look at the resistance and root causes from the earlier examples of desirable changes
  • Change A (email system change) - Chad has been unable to fully configure the new email system and is afraid to speak up for fear of being bothersome or appearing incompetent, so avoids using the new email system altogether.

The framework to apply to this type of resistance is that "a lack of desire is not always the cause of resistance." After further analysis, it has become apparent that the employee lacks the knowledge to effectively configure the new email system, though the desire to use the new system is in place.

  • Change B (office location change) - As much as Barbara is looking forward to her new office, she is slow to move her files and supplies out of her old workspace. The change of work environment, adaptation to the new work space and charge of getting reorganized makes her feel uncomfortable and unsettled.

Even though the employee desires the new future state, it is the messiness of the transition state that is causing difficulties for the employee. Her behaviors appear to demonstrate that she doesn't desire to move, but in reality she might just need more time to adjust and get settled.

  • Change C (benefits package change) - Even though the bonus incentive amount has increased with the new benefits package, employees are now receiving bonus checks only twice a year, opposed to quarterly. Jeff resists the change initially because he had intentions of purchasing a new car with his upcoming quarterly bonus check and now must wait longer.

On the surface, the change seemed to be desirable because of its beneficial monetary impact on employees' bonus checks. However, in Jeff's case, the change from quarterly payments to bi-annual is the source of resistance as it has disrupted his personal plans.

  1. Develop approach for managing resistance: Your resistance management approach is comprised of steps and tactics for managing resistance. Prosci outlines three avenues for managing resistance, including preventative, proactive and reactive resistance management. Based on the analysis, assessments, and information gathered from the above steps, you have identified where your reactive resistance management efforts should be targeted.

Tactics for addressing resistance:

  • Engage key players - Managers play a really important role as they are closest to employees during change and influential with employees on an individual level. Your first step in managing resistance is empowering managers and supervisors with the tools, resources and support to manage resistance with their employees. If an employee like Jeff is resistant because he will be receiving bonus checks less frequently though the monetary amount has increased, then his manager needs to work closely with him to build individual awareness of the need for change and what that means for the employee.
  • Be an advocate and coach - In these situations where you are facing resistance to a desirable change, sometimes what is needed is simply an advocate and coach. If the resistance is stemming from a lack of knowledge for configuring a new email system, perhaps all that is needed is some one-on-one coaching and advocating for the change to make sure employees like Chad receive the additional support needed to build knowledge on how to configure his new account.
  • Employ reactive resistance management - If resistance persists, it may be necessary to evoke reactive resistance management tactics. It is understandable that it can take time to adjust to a new work environment, as Barbara is experiencing, but if the resistance becomes enduring and persistent, it may be necessary to use more concrete methods, such as offering clear and concise choices and consequences.


In order to effectively manage resistance to change, you must first have an understanding of what resistance is and avenues for managing it. Then, you will be able to more effectively recognize, analyze and address unique situations where resistance was once unexpected, but has arisen.

Download the Managing Resistance to Change Executive Summary