Resistance is a natural response to change. Think about it. How many times have you resisted a change, yet not been able to explain exactly why you’re not sure about getting on the bus? Sometimes all it takes is the simple mention of a change to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. For some, it results in feelings of anger or frustration. For others, it creates a lot of nervous anxiety that boils just under the surface. Sometimes, it can create feelings of sadness or isolation.

Regardless of the feelings produced, resistance is our body’s way of trying to avoid disruption to our current state. And it can happen in response to changes in both our personal and professional lives. Here, we’ll explore the role resistance plays in business and how you can best manage it. We’ll tackle change from the employee perspective, although we recognize that many of these same thoughts can apply to vendors, suppliers and customers.

Expect and plan for resistance

Resistance during a change exists whether we like it or not. You can choose to try and ignore it. But we can tell you from experience that resistance is like a ticking time bomb. Left unchecked, it’ll blow up your plans. Thus, we recommend that you first accept that it’s a part of business, and then prepare for it. Because being able to mitigate resistance is crucial to making a change that sticks.

So, how do you go about preparing for such resistance? Change managers agree you can avoid a lot of it by making sure effective change management is a part of the mix, right from the beginning. In fact, change consultant firm Prosci is quick to point out that if you do change management right the first time, you can prevent a lot of resistance from ever occurring.

Like many other organizations who offer change education, Prosci recommends you do four main activities to achieve successful change:

  • Use a structured change management approach.
  • Engage senior leaders as visible and active sponsors.
  • Gain support from all levels of management as advocates.
  • Communicate the need for change, answering the “What’s in it for me?”

Doing these four things will help create a sense of urgency for the change and help employees understand the “why” behind the change. This, coupled with ongoing communications and support, will help staff see how the change will benefit them in the future.

Negative effects of resistance

A high or prolonged level of resistance can have a damaging effect on an organization’s performance. If the resistance is strong enough, it can prevent an organization from achieving its business goals. In some cases, this can lead to devastating consequences, including salary freezes or layoffs. Resistance to change may even force a business to close its doors. Because of this, it’s important to fully understand your organization’s readiness for change before you try to introduce a new way of doing business or other change. Understanding the root cause(s) of any resistance is also important. Doing so will help you plan for how to handle it.

Common causes of resistance

According to Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, there are 10 common causes of resistance to change. Most of which boil down to one powerful emotion: fear.

  • Loss of control
  • Excessive uncertainty
  • Is unexpected or a surprise
  • It’s excessive (too many changes at once)
  • Loss of face
  • Concerns about competence
  • It requires more effort/work
  • Ripple effect
  • Past resentments
  • It can hurt

Change is hard

Even when a change promises to solve big business problems, you can still expect resistance. That’s because, quite simply, change is hard. Experts in the emerging neuroleadership field, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, have found that resistance is both a psychological and a physiological reaction. To do things differently requires the human brain to work harder. Needless to say, it’s not easy. But with the right amount of communication and support, people can adapt and be successful in times of change.

The learning dip

Now, we want to point out that you should expect a learning dip to occur when people are asked to do something different. According to another expert, Dr. Ramesh Mehay, this learning dip happens as individuals move through four stages during a change.

Unconscious incompetence – This is the time just before a change happens. It’s when staff are blissfully unaware that they do not have the skills necessary to succeed in the future state.

Conscious incompetence – This is the period when the change has occurred, and staff are painfully aware that they need to learn a new skill and realize that it’s hard.

Conscious competence – This is when staff acknowledge that they’re making progress, slowly but surely. They’re consciously thinking about the new way of doing business and may still make a few mistakes.

Unconscious competence – This is where staff have mastered the new skill and the new way is fully ingrained in their brain. In other words, this becomes the new norm and business as usual.

It’s important to note that performance will also take a dive during this process. And that’s OK. Or at least it should be OK with senior leadership because it’s simply a reality of change. The goal is to be prepared with appropriate communication and training to minimize the downturn in productivity. This will also help reduce frustration and anxiety, which can cut down on resistance.

Change is also personal

Change is also very personal. In his stages of transition model, William Bridges outlines three distinct phases that individuals must go through with change: Endings, Neutral Zone and New Beginnings. We’ve discussed this topic at length before, so be sure to check out this blogpost for more information on these stages.

Resistance can rear its ugly head in all three of these phases, particularly the Neutral Zone. Expect a lot of frustration, anxiety, anger and even fear during this phase—all of which contribute to an increased level of resistance. Some people may express their resistance out loud, while others may simply disengage. In the worst-case scenario, staff will actively try to sabotage the change process.

Watch for and be prepared to handle all these types of resistance. One of the best ways to do this is to have a solid communications plan in place that takes potential negatives into account. This advanced planning will help you quickly address issues that fuel resistance. It’s also important that you fully engage the change sponsor, senior leaders and other managers. They should act as advocates for the change—remaining highly visible and speaking with one voice during the change.

As we outlined in the blogpost mentioned above, it’s important to help people connect to the change throughout all three phases. And though it may sound harsh, be sure to identify and put on notice those who choose not to connect to it.

Reducing resistance

We’ve already established that communications plays a crucial role in managing resistance to change. So, what exactly can communicators do to ensure a successful change initiative? Here are six helpful hints:

Establish a dedicated change network

Right out of the gate, you’ll want to have a change management process in place. In many cases, you may need to allow a select group of people to focus exclusively on the change. This means giving them the ability to take some of their regular duties off their plate while they work to support the business change.

Having a dedicated external resource such as IronStrike during this time can be of tremendous value, too. While we acknowledge bringing in an outsider has a few unique challenges, it can also be helpful by providing a dedicated team to provide much-needed bandwidth during a busy and often stressful time. They can also help with the exchange of information, as well as:

  • Assist with identifying and mapping key stakeholders.
  • Conduct third-party research to help identify pockets of concern.
  • Develop and implement targeted communications plans and associated messaging.
  • Help break down silos and mitigate resistance.
  • Test theories and ideas, as well as potential approaches and solutions.
  • Serve a subject matter expert in change management—appropriately challenging ideas and actions as well as making recommendations for continuous improvement.
  • Be a source of information for staff and provide a third-party feedback mechanism, as needed.

In every case, you’ll want to identify and engage all key stakeholders. Note we didn’t say some, but all, stakeholders. This means you’ll need to take time to think about everyone who will be impacted by the change. Bringing these folks, or at least someone who represents each group, to the table can help you minimize disruptions and resistance. And remember, you may forget a key stakeholder, but they surely won’t forget you. So be sure to do a thorough analysis early in the process. We tackled this topic in more detail in a recent blogpost. Check it out!

Answer the “What’s in it for me” question

Change begins at the individual level. When faced with a change, the first question everyone asks is “What’s in it for me?” In other words, “Why should I care?” Communicators can help answer this question through advanced planning and by involving people in decision-making. Ask your previously identified stakeholders what they think. What do they like about the change? What concerns do they have about it? Are there things that haven’t yet been added to the mix? Getting several perspectives can help you tease out areas of concern so you can address them up front.

Dr. Kanter echoes this, suggesting that you leave some room for those affected to make choices and get involved in the conversation. This gives them a feeling of ownership and can help heal old wounds that might be lingering from the last time the organization made a major change. Celebrating the elements of the past that are worth honoring is yet another valuable technique for reducing resistance. This might mean carrying over a name or a relic from an old building. Or dedicating a space in a new location for photos and other objects that help tell the organization’s rich history.

One caveat: As you’re answering the WIIFM question, be sure to tie it all back to the overarching benefit. Sometimes a change may benefit some staff more than others. This is where your communication skills will be of value in determining how to message it so that everyone understands and appreciates the bigger picture.

Develop clear messages

Once you know the direction you’re heading, develop clear messages that are appropriate for key audiences. We recommend using the KISS—Keep it Simple, Stupid—method. This doesn’t mean you have to dumb it down. Rather, use clear, concise language and an appropriate tone for all your communications. And don’t forget to cater to different personality and learning styles. Not everyone receives and interprets information in the same way.

In addition, all communications should include expected actions and deadlines, and let people know where they can find additional information or support. This may be via a town hall meeting, your company intranet or an employee’s manager. Most importantly, be honest and timely with your information. Consider the impact the communications will have. For example, if layoffs are occurring, it may be better to do one big layoff announcement and offer lots of support instead of dragging it out and doing several small layoffs over an extended time.

Be realistic

Be realistic about the impact of the change. When communicating, create a sense of certainty whenever possible. This means providing clear, simple steps and timeframes. Tell people what isn’t changing. According to Dr. Kanter, it’s also important to minimize the number of unrelated differences and avoid change for change’s sake. And never plan a change in secret. Instead, be as honest and transparent as possible and begin communicating the change early. Remember that it’s OK to not have every tiny detail in place before starting your communications. Telling people what you know today is better than waiting a month to say anything.

Gather feedback

As you move through a transition, collecting feedback and input from people impacted by the change is an effective way to monitor the effectiveness of your communications efforts. It’s also a great way to create a two-way dialogue and more meaningful exchange of ideas. At the end of the day, it provides valuable information on whether the messages you’re sharing are hitting the mark.

Keep people informed

During a transition, be sure to provide a lot of information, education and support to help people through the change. If the change is complex or the transition will last a long time, you may want to consider identifying subject matter experts or mentors to help people understand and embrace it.

Keep in mind that managers walk a fine line during a change. They’re responsible for making sure the directives from senior leaders are implemented while dealing with resistance and issues from their teams. Their priority will likely be to maintain their team’s performance. This is where you may need to consider adjustments that will allow for the dip we referenced earlier. We recommend you consider making temporary adjustments to productivity targets or giving employees more flexibility while you’re in the Neutral Zone, or the in-between time of change. Also, be sure to communicate as much as you can to your managers/supervisors. Give them access to confidential information—even if it’s only a little. By arming them with as much information as you can, you reduce their stress levels and empower them to selectively answer frontline questions.


Anyone who’s ever lead a change initiative knows that many factors drive how fast or slow the transition can occur. Often, it depends on how much resistance there is, and how well you manage it. Start by analyzing the amount and types of resistance you anticipate. Then think about the change agent network in relation to those who may resist the change. Can they influence them in a constructive way? Also think about who’s in the best position to lead the change and has the energy and capacity to make it happen. We’ve already pointed out that this should include all levels of management. And finally, consider how great the risks are if the organization fails to make the change. If the risks are big, make sure you have the right resources in place both internally and externally. For help in managing a change, contact us.