5 Tips for Managing Resistance to Change
Written by Lisa Kempton
Updated: January 8, 2024
Published: August 9, 2022
Managing resistance effectively is critical to success with organizational change. Learn from thousands of change management practitioners by following these five tips, which emerged from Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management research over the last twenty-five years:
- Do change management right the first time
- Expect resistance to change
- Address resistance formally
- Identify the root causes of resistance
- Engage the “right” resistance managers
Align your resistance management activities with change management best practices in our free webinar, "Understanding Resistance Through Prosci's ADKAR Model."
1. Do Change Management Right the First Time
Although resistance is a normal human response to change, we can avoid or mitigate a significant amount of resistance by applying effective change management from the start of a project or initiative. Change management is not just a tool for managing resistance reactively. It is most effective as a tool for activating and engaging employees in a change. Capturing and leveraging the passion and positive emotion surrounding a change often prevents resistance from occurring in the first place.
Participants in Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking research indicated that much of the employee resistance they encountered could have avoided by implementing effective change management practices and principles. The moral here is: If you do change management right the first time, you can prevent much of the resistance from occurring.
Actions for addressing and mitigating resistance include:
- Utilizing a structured change management approach from the initiation of the project
- Engaging senior leaders as active and visible sponsors of the change
- Recruiting support from people managers as advocates for the change
- Communicating the need for change, its impacts on individuals, and the benefits to employees (i.e., answering "What's in it for me?")
Each of these tactics are part of a structured change management approach and directly address some of the main sources of resistance. They can actually prevent resistance from happening when they happen early in the project lifecycle because they help front-line employees understand the "why" behind the change and see the commitment from leaders throughout the organization. This also prevents resistance later in the project when it can adversely impact benefits realization, project schedules and budget.
2. Expect Resistance to Change
Do not be surprised by resistance! Even if the project solution is a wonderful improvement to a problem that plagues employees, there will be resistance to change. Comfort with the status quo is very powerful. Moving into an unknown future state creates anxiety, fear and stress, even if the current state is painful. Project teams and change management teams should work to address resistance and mitigate it, and always expect it.
Research on human brain function shows that resistance is not only a psychological reaction to change but also physiological. To act in a new way requires more power from the brain. When presented with a new way of doing something, the physiological reaction is to revert back to what the brain already knows. Human beings can adapt their behavior, but it is a difficult and painful process—even for the brain itself.
When preparing for resistance, spend time before the project launches to look at likely sources of resistance. All too often, a project team will reflect back on resistance and say, "We knew that group was going to resist the change," but nothing was done to address it upfront in the project. When the project is getting started, be proactive and specific about where resistance is likely to come from and the likely objections that drive this resistance. Then, act on this knowledge ahead of time before the resistance impacts the project.
Sources of resistance include:
- Employees who are highly invested in the current way of doing work
- People who created the current way of doing work that will be changed
- Employees who expect more work as a result of the change
- Those who advocated a particular alternative, (e.g., they wanted Option B, but Option A was selected)
- People who have been very successful and rewarded in the current way of doing work
These groups are likely sources of resistance and should be addressed proactively in the project lifecycle with targeted tactics for mitigating these objections.
3. Formally Manage Resistance to Change
Managing resistance to change should not be solely a reactive tactic for change management practitioners. Resistance prevention enables you to address and mitigate resistance early and should be incorporated into your change management approach for projects and initiatives.
Resistance management is addressed with specific actions and activities in all three phases of the Prosci 3-Phase Process:
Phase 1 – Prepare Approach
We begin planning for resistance prevention while creating the Change Management Strategy deliverable in this initial phase. Actions center on early identification and anticipated points of resistance, and special tactics for addressing them.
We also identify specific risks by conducting Risk Assessments during Phase 1 – Prepare Approach.
Phase 2 – Manage Change
During Phase 2 – Manage Change, we also develop resistance response activities for persistent, pervasive resistance when it occurs.
During this phase, you may also decide to develop a separate Resistance Management Plan to develop additional tactics and complement your core Change Management Plans.
Phase 3 -Sustain Outcomes
During Phase 3 – Sustain Outcomes, we review performance to understand the initiative progress, ADKAR outcomes, and status of change management activities. Resistance management during Phase 3 – Sustain Outcomes consists of assessing performance of resistance management activities and documenting lessons learned for the future.
Formally addressing resistance ensures that it is understood and dealt with throughout the lifecycle of the project. This moves managing resistance to change from simply a reactive mechanism to a proactive and ultimately more effective tool for mobilizing support and addressing objections.
4. Identify the Root Causes of
Resistance to Change
Managing resistance is ineffective when it simply focuses on the symptoms. The symptoms of resistance are observable and often overt, such as complaining, not attending key meetings, not providing requested information or resources, or simply not adopting a change to a process or behavior. Although they are more evident, focusing on these symptoms will not yield results. To be effective, you must look deeper into what is causing the resistance. Effective resistance management requires identifying the root causes of resistance to understanding why someone is resistant.
Prosci's Best Practices in Change Management research provides a nice starting point for understanding the root causes of resistance. Results from the 2019 study revealed important themes in the top reasons for resistance, which reaffirms the results from previous studies. When asked to identify the primary reasons employees resisted change, study participants identified several root causes:
- Lack of awareness of why the change was being made
- Impact on current job role
- Fear rooted in uncertainty due to past failed changes
- Lack of visible support from and trust in management or leadership
- Lack of inclusion in the change
Knowing these primary root causes, change teams can prepare a compelling case for the need for change, which senior leaders then communicate to the organization. This simple activity targets the top cause for resistance (i.e., lack of awareness) and can prevent much of it on a project or initiative. You can use additional benchmarking findings and your own experience with change in your organization to customize your list of likely root causes with activities to address and mitigate each.
The Prosci ADKAR Model and the ADKAR Assessment also enable you to hone in on the root cause of resistance by identifying an individual's barrier point and addressing that root cause. The ADKAR Model is a powerful diagnostic framework that can be quickly and easily applied by change management teams and people managers in formal assessments or casual conversations.
Finally, it is important to remember that resistance to change is ultimately an individual phenomenon. Although research and analysis can identify general root causes for resistance, we must address resistance at the individual level. The best way to identify the root cause of resistance is through a personal conversation between a resistant employee and their people manager.
5. Engage the "Right" Resistance Managers
The change management team is not effective at resistance management. Project team members, human resources teams, and organization development specialists are not effective resistance managers either. The "right" resistance managers in an organization are senior leaders and people managers, and they have different roles to play.
At a high level, senior leaders help mitigate resistance by making a compelling case for the need for change and demonstrating their commitment to a change. Employees look to senior leaders when they are deciding if a change is important—and they judge what they see and hear from this group. If senior leaders are not committed to a change or waver in their support, employees will also consider the change to be unimportant and resist it.
People managers are the other key group responsible for managing resistance because they are closest to the employees who must ultimately adopt and use a change in their daily work. If a people manager is resistant to a change, or even neutral, their direct reports will probably follow suit. Fortunately, the reverse is also true. An openly supportive people manager who advocates for a particular change is likely to see the same behaviors in their employees' reactions.
Prosci's benchmarking data reveals five key roles of people managers during change, and two connect directly to managing resistance: 1) Demonstrating support for the change and 2) Identifying and mitigating resistance. Of course, you must first address resistance from people managers themselves before asking them to manage resistance in their teams.
The change team or practitioner can do much of the legwork in understanding and addressing resistance, but the role or face of resistance management within the organization belongs to senior leaders and people managers. The change practitioner's role is to enable the "right" resistance managers by providing data about where resistance is coming from, identifying likely root causes, offering potential tactics for addressing resistance, and providing tools to identify and manage resistance. But the "right" resistance managers must take action to address objections and help employees move successfully through the change process.