Change management: Reasons for change resistance

Learn about IT change management, read about passive and active resistance and get 20 reasons why employees resist enterprise change.

The following excerpt about change management resistance is from Breakthrough IT change management: How to get...

enduring change results and is printed with permission from Butterworth-Heinemann, a division of Elsevier. Copyright 2005. Read the chapter below to learn 20 reasons why employees tend to resist change management, or download a free .pdf of the chapter: "Change management: Reasons for change resistance."

Change management resistance


Types of change management resistance

There are a number of ways to categorize resistance. This is useful for the change team and change management because it helps to understand, discuss, and counter the resistance. One way is by passive and active resistance.


  • Active resistance. This is rarer in most societies due to culture. In active resistance, some employees will openly question the changes and indicate a lack of support for change. Active resistance is easier to cope with since it is out in the open. You can work with the problems that they raise. In the worst case you can even work around the person.
  • Passive resistance. This may be difficult to detect. It takes time for you to uncover signs of this in people. People may actually express support for change, but when change is getting closer to being implemented, the resistance starts to come through.

More on change management
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A second related perspective is to consider open versus underground resistance. Underground resistance is more difficult to cope with than passive resistance, because it is active resistance but not evident. In fact, you can create a chart such as that in Figure 3.1. Here one axis is active and passive. The other is open and underground. You can place people's initials in the chart. In Figure 3.1, xyz is a person who actively resists change and openly does so. This is typically a king or queen bee. Person abc is someone who actively resists but does not do so out in the open. Person abc is a real threat to change management since you may not detect that abc feels this way early in the change effort. Person def is someone who is passively resistant to change and who now and then openly admits his/her concern. This is more unusual, but can often be addressed through logical argument. Finally, person ghi is someone whose resistance is passive and underground. These people are many in number since they have natural doubts about the change and whether it will really work. Oftentimes, these individuals can be brought along as the change effort proceeds. The change team may wish to identify individuals in this chart. However, it is obvious that this must be kept confidential.

Another way to view resistance is in terms of the source of the resistance. Already discussed have been emotional sources such as fear of loss of job and fear of power loss. Another source is that of dread of learning something new. Civilization has always had problems with getting new methods and technology into widespread use—even after the new has been proven and demonstrated to be more effective than the old. This is particularly true with changes in business processes that involve automation. It is important to show the new system and, hence, the new process and procedures are simpler to use.

Factors behind change management resistance

Several factors behind the resistance have been discussed. It is now time to examine a wider range of factors that give rise to resistance to change.


  • Fear of change is contagious. People around you are afraid of change and transfer this to you. This is most frequently done by relating the worse case impacts of change. A cause of this is often that management did not clearly and convincingly spell out what would happen after the change.
  • Management emphasizes cost savings over productivity and satisfaction of employees. The employees begin to look around and see that cost savings can only really come about in staff cuts. Junior employees become worried since they may feel that the last hired are the first terminated. Senior employees feel that their positions will be diminished.
  • In some situations people were not properly trained in their current jobs so that they have more resistance to change. In many business units if, during the interview, it is found that they have done the same or similar work for another firm, they are hired and placed in a department. It is assumed that they do not need training since they know how of doing the work. However, this creates problems since there could be several different ways to do the work. This lack of standardization then leads to more problems when change is attempted.
  • Previous attempts at change in their business unit failed. Employees may then think that this will be another failed attempt. They see no reason to support the change.
  • Change in another department resulted in job cutbacks. The writing is on the wall. No matter what the management or the change team says, the real approach is perceived to be aimed at job cutback.
  • In carrying out the change, the change team does not value the knowledge and experience of the employees. Their sense of worth is diminished so that they are more likely to resist change. Employees often sense this when they are asked what they do, but are not asked about how they do the work. They perceive that the change team does not care.
  • Fear of demotion or loss of position. This has been discussed. It is interesting to note that the more management says that there will be no layoffs, the more the employees feel that there will be.
  • There has been a history of problems with management so that there is a lack of trust and faith. Some managers in the past have gone hot and cold on change. They may have tried in a half-hearted way some exotic change method or something related to change. These initiatives then disrupted the work.
  • People are unwilling to participate in change because management views the additional work as part of the job and does not value it. Management priorities are not clear. Moreover, the employees think that management feels that they must not do much work since they are insisting that the change can be carried out on top of existing work.
  • Employees receive different signals and messages from management and various members of the change team. This leads not only to confusion, but also resistance. Different signals can be characterized by giving different directions, various and conflicting goals of change, and contradictory procedures or policies.
  • Employees participate and volunteer information at the start of the change effort, but they see that other people take credit for their work. Some employees have embraced change and have come up with ideas of their own to the change team. Often, the employees had to really think about the change for a long time since they were not trained or have experience in change. Now they see members of the change team taking credit for their ideas. They rightly feel ripped off.
  • The employees are not told what is expected of them. There is a lack of planning with them. They are just told how to change their work. There is no discussion of impact or what the benefits are to be. This fuzziness leads to confusion and then to resistance.
  • Resistance worked before in the past, it might work again. This is human nature. What worked in the past is often what is perceived to work well in the current situation.
  • There is substantial management change and turnover. Current management has directed that change be carried out. Yet, similar things have occurred in the past. Then the managers moved on to other jobs. The employees feel that if they can hold out longer, these managers will disappear.
  • The change is not addressing major needs. The changes that are defined by the change team are good and perceived as such by the employees. However, there is no effort to address the major problems that the employees perceive to exist.
  • People are being pulled away from their work, but are still held accountable for the same performance. The employees are involved in the change effort during working hours. However, their normal work is not done by anyone else. So they have to work over their breaks and lunch time to make up for the time lost in the change effort. What does this tell them about how management values their work?
  • The change leaders and team do not address issues raised by the employees. The employees may raise legitimate issues and questions. The change team or leaders acknowledge the concerns, but nothing is done. The employees almost have no alternative, but to feel that (1) the change team does not care or value their opinions; (2) the change team is following their own agenda without regard to the employees.
  • There are major work pressures, such as year-end closing, right at the time when change is being attempted. This is obviously poor timing and planning. However, you can still undertake change if you carefully work with these additional pressures.
  • After the change has been defined, middle managers and the change team tinker with the details of the change. Specific directions have been given on how the work is to be done. A short time later a manager or supervisor arrives and sees what is going on and starts to insist on changes in details. The employees become confused and complain that they don't know what to do.
  • The change team does not make clear in detail how the new procedures are to work. There are gaps between what directions they are given and what they must do. This is like being given a recipe for a food dish that is incomplete. You have to invent steps to fill the gaps, or you revert back to what you know works.

Now scan this list and what do you see? You see that the common sources of the problems were:


  • Lack of coordination and training in carrying out change for the change team.
  • Poor leadership by the change managers.
  • Lack of coordination among managers and between managers and the change team.

When these problems occur, it should not surprise you that people resist change.

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