Explore the Levels of Change Management

The Value of Constructive Resistance to Change


5 Mins


Resistance to change comes in many shapes and sizes, and it manifests through all sorts of employee behaviors. Although resistance can cause difficulties during a change project, some can be very helpful to your project.  Understanding how to identify the root causes of resistance and best actions to take will enable you to benefit from it. 

Before we explore constructive resistance, let's think about three basic sources of resistance to change:

Natural Resistance to Change

This form of resistance is tied to the natural, human reaction when things around us change. Root causes of this type of resistance include fear of the unknown and loss of stability during change. In times of change, resistant behaviors emerge as a psychological and physiological reaction, which we should expect to some degree.

However, we can mitigate much of the resistance and help people through their individual transitions by applying preventative change management approaches designed to understand the root cause and help individuals overcome barriers.

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Resistance to Change Due to Poor Change Management

This form of resistance emerges from a failure on the part of the project team, leadership team and management team to effectively engage employees during times of change. In this case, resistance behaviors often stem from unanswered questions people have, including:

  • Why is this change happening?
  • Why is it happening now?
  • Why should I get on board?
  • Will I be adequately prepared to succeed when the change is implemented?

When these questions go unanswered, employees will face barriers to adopting the change. Not because they are opposed to it, but because they have not been engaged in the process. These barriers can be largely avoided through effective change management, which includes embedding resistance prevention strategies and actions into change management plans. And if specific barriers to the change persist, you can address them through a different set of actions designed specifically for resistance response.

Constructive Resistance to Change 

Constructive resistance can emerge due to an informed disagreement with the change. Employees exhibiting this type of resistance have worked through the natural reaction and have received answers to their questions. Yet, they still experience barriers to adopting the change because the root cause is that they disagree with an aspect of the change or solution itself.

It is important to surface and act upon this information. Usually, this "constructive" resistance enables you to unearth issues the project team needs to address if the project is going to deliver the intended business results and outcomes.

Constructive resistance to change is perhaps an unusual notion because resistant behaviors of any kind are often viewed as barriers to project success. After all, if individuals do not embrace and adopt the change, the change cannot be realized. The important message here is that the root causes of this resistance differ from other types and cannot be viewed or treated the same way.

Just as resistance does not always stem from a lack of Desire, constructive resistance can be used to the benefit the project and improve outcomes. People on the front lines of your organization are the end users of your solution. They're often customer facing and directly impacted by the change, which makes them valuable sources of insight for the change team.

How to Identify Constructive Resistance to Change

We usually don't know what prompts an employee to walk through the door and say, "This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard," "Here we go again," or "What do they think they are doing to us?"

Is the behavior a natural reaction to change? Is it poor change management? Or is it constructive resistance in the form of an informed disagreement with the change? We need to identify and isolate the root cause of resistance to determine if the barrier is something we can help the employee work through, or if it constitutes something we need to surface and analyze at the project level.

The first step to analyzing the root cause of barriers to a change is to conduct an ADKAR Assessment, a tool based on the Prosci ADKAR Model. It is important to remember that change practitioners are not usually the right people to communicate messages and dig out the root cause of resistance. Instead, you should enlist managers and senior leaders to ask questions, listen to employees, enable feedback loops, and provide coaching.

When conducting root cause analysis, you should also coach managers to ask questions such as:

  • Why do you think the change is happening?
  • Do you support this change?
  • Do you have the training you need?
  • Are you having difficulties implementing the required skills and behaviors?
  • Are you getting the reinforcement you need?

If you can verify through assessments, surveys, informal chats or formal conversations that an employee is experiencing a barrier to change because the solution or implementation process is broken or not suitable, you have identified a form of constructive resistance. Consider this a benefit to your project because you can use this information to improve your process and achieve better outcomes.

Identifying the root cause of constructive resistance

Let's consider an example. A large retail store decided to replace traditional barcode scanners with smart phones. This change would allow employees to carry fewer and slimmer devices. Employees were excited about the change, and change management was actively applied throughout the change process. Employees received the smart phones and training on how to use them effectively.

A few weeks after deployment to one particular store, employees started leaving the new phones behind as they continued with day-to-day activities. As the perceived resistance became more and more persistent, the project team spoke with floor managers to uncover the root cause. Asking questions about why employees were not using the new, much anticipated devices revealed that the smart phones did not function properly as actual phones, as originally intended.

Further investigation revealed that the phones deployed to this store did not undergo proper testing beforehand—which created a barrier to adopting the change. In the end, resistant behaviors from end users actually helped identify a functionality failure of the new devices.

Informed disagreement with a change can be constructive resistance, which can serve as essential input for those designing, developing and implementing the change. This is not to say that all resistant behaviors should be reinforced. But it is important to conduct proper root cause analysis to surface important information that could potentially benefit the project and outcomes, as well as the people being impacted.

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Action Steps for Constructive Resistance

Addressing natural resistance and resistance stemming from unanswered questions requires applying effective change management and resistance management techniques. Constructive resistance due to informed disagreement requires different actions. Instead of taking this resistance at face value, we should collect deeper insights and convey them to the project team.

Step 1: Collect

The first step is to capture the resistance and its root causes. This is especially important for constructive resistance where the root cause is often tied to the solutions or decisions coming from the project team. Be as clear and concrete as possible when capturing the specific objections or informed disagreement. As in the example above, people managers (those immediate supervisors closest to the employees who must bring the solution to life in their daily work) can often provide insights to help you clarify reasons behind the resistance you're documenting.

Step 2: Convey

Communicate objections and points of informed disagreement to the project team. Even if the project team designed the solution with the end user in mind, it's impossible to foresee every potential obstacle. Conveying the feedback from the employees exhibiting resistant behaviors to the project team will offer a starting point for adjusting the solution or implementation process and can significantly improve the outcomes.

Understand and Manage Resistance With
the Prosci ADKAR Model

Managing resistance during change can be quite complex. Once we understand it, we can begin to help people experiencing negative impacts move through their barriers to adoption. And certain forms of resistance can be leveraged to improve aspects of the project and positively impact business outcomes. When an employee has an informed disagreement about a change, it can actually be a gift to the project team—an opportunity to gain valuable insights about potential issues with the project and achieve greater success with change.

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Founded in 1994, Prosci is a global leader in change management. We enable organizations around the world to achieve change outcomes and grow change capability through change management solutions based on holistic, research-based, easy-to-use tools, methodologies and services.

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