Do People Really Resist Change?

People always resist change.

This must be true if you listen to the “experts” when it comes to organizations implementing new ideas, approaches, programs, etc..  And these organizations can be anything from the place you work to your local rotary club and all things in-between.

It seems that whenever a new program is attempted to be implemented, and it falls short of expectations, that the leaders who were charged with the implementation write off the failure to the conventional wisdom that people just resist change.

But is that really true?  I don’t believe we can make such a carte blanche statement.  It’s not that people resist change, it’s that people resist change they are not prepared for, informed of, or had time to understand.  I attended a speech by Eli Goldratt, creator of the Theory of Constraints, and he used a very interesting example:

Taking an adult, who was married with children, Eli asked a simple question, “What were the two biggest changes in your life?”

The response, after a little thought, “Getting married and having children.”

He then asked, “Did you resist them or embrace them?”

“Embrace them.”

Some may find this example a bit obtuse, but it drives the point.  Who can argue that marriage and childbirth are not significant changes in a person’s life?  Yet most people go willingly into these changes – sometimes more than once!  Why is this?  Because they have had time to adjust and “come to grips” with the change.  They were prepared, informed, and had time to understand.

We don’t tend to allow for this acclimation in our organizations.  Here’s the way the scenario typically plays out:

Leadership comes up with an idea, and they discuss it amongst themselves – often times for months!  After much debate, and deep thought, the leader decides the idea is a good one and it should be implemented in the organization.  They call together their team, and lay it out.  They tell them to think about it overnight and come back with any thoughts – there are usually very few.  They then tell the team to implement it in the next 2 weeks (after all, this is a good idea).  The organization then has 2 weeks (or less) to hear the idea, process it, prepare themselves, and understand the impact of the change.  Remember, the leader had months to “get it”.  The change does not go as well as planned.  The leader says, “See, people just resist change.”  Perhaps the leader should look in the mirror?

Change is not easy, but it is not naturally resisted – when properly communicated. Oh, and when it comes to communication, John Kotter of the Harvard Business School says we under-communicate change “by a factor of ten.”  So, however much you thing you are communicating the change, it’s probably not enough.

Again, change is hard – it’s hard for the recipient, and it’s hard for the implementer.

Let me know your thoughts on this!


7 thoughts on “Do People Really Resist Change?

  1. Dear Glenn,

    I got your blog (from 9 february, Do people really resist change?) forwarded by a colleague of mine and found it interesting to read. I think the example of Eli Goldratt fails however, just for the simple reason that he was asking the question to someone who wanted to change (because most of the people who get children, did want them anyway).

    By definition changing people is getting them to want something else than they have at the moment. Communication is just a tool to achieve this goal; making people aware of the necessity to change and align thoughts on the topic. The most important part of communicating is not doing it as much as you can, but to show your empathy to the people you want to change. That you understand their current situation, explain the new situation and tell what’s in it for them. Don’t do this just once at the start of the change-process, but monitor their reaction during the actual change and communicate again if needed.

    I am curious about your view on this!

    Best regards,

    Jeroen Luigjes

    • Jeroen,

      Having empathy to the people you want to change is very important, and to me, part of the communication process. Simply sending out a daily note that a new system is coming in 6 months is not effective communication. Effective communication involves as you said taking the time to “understand their current situation, explain the new situation and tell what’s in it for them.” This is an on-going process and can not be accomplished by sending a bunch of notes out or putting it on the company newsletter each month. People must be able to understand what the change is, the “why are we doing this”, and of course the “what’s in it for me”.

      Too often the leaders of the change neglect to properly (and effectively) communicate the change, and then underestimate the time it will take for the organization to adopt the change. These leaders have a responsibility to make sure the change is adopted, but when it’s not, they are too willing to blame the organization and the people for resisting and not being willing to change, when they need to take a look at their own actions to see if they did all they could to make the change successful – most times, they do not. Unless there has been a “significant emotional event”, change takes time, but it can happen – it’s just hard work!

      Thanks for your comments!


  2. Great post Glenn.

    Change is difficult … so is communication. And no one communication model fits all circumstances. Frequently the “owner” of the change must adapt the message, sometimes more than just once, in order to reach the entire audience. Previously, while helping automotive suppliers understand and embrace the Toyota Production System, the single most common feedback from those I was trying to reach was “OK, but we’re not Toyota”. The communication required navigating around any lingering resentment toward Toyota, not resentment of the change itself. Now working in a healthcare transformation there is virtually no resentment toward Toyota – although the recalls have prompted some interesting discussions. So while teaching many of the same philosophies and tools, the communication has adapted, as always, in order to meet the customer’s needs.

  3. Glenn,

    I agree. Although I’m not sure most people are prepared for the change of marriage and children, even if they want them.

    I don’t believe people fear change. It’s that they fear that the change will bring something worse. They don’t trust the change.

    Communication is insufficient, as words are often empty in the face of fear. Demonstration is the most effective means. Taking small steps and letting people experience the change in a safe way allows them to decide for themselves whether or not they can trust the change.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  4. Glenn you are right on the money with this. And as a stakeholder in the change process (involved in or affected by), the only person that I will trust to decide and explain to me what is in it for me is… me. You can’t just explain it to me, you have to demonstrate it and I will decide, as Jamie noted.

  5. If it’s hard for an individual to change their behavior, then what is the degree of difficulty of changing the culture of an organization? Off the charts! If an organization believes that the level of effort to affect a change will be x, they would be well-advised to recalculate that to something like 10x. And their assumptions regarding the level of buy-in should be reduced from x to .1(x). If, after this reappraisal of the costs and benefits, the effort still seems worthwhile, they can move forward with realistic expectations. Realistic expectations are key, because if you don’t have them, you’ll give up quickly and people will assume (correctly) that you were never serious in the first place.

  6. Change is easy to decide. However it is difficult to implement. Change cannot be implemented in a day or week, it should be implemented in phases. If someone is doing a job for years and he has to change his way of doing things, he will obviously resist to change due to the human nature and the culture of of organization. However if you have a phased CAP process which can be measure the success of it at each phase and identify the hurdles and implement hard decisions whereever needed without alternate way of doing things, then change can be implemented with little difficulty.

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