The 4 Reasons People Resist Change

If you want to have your good idea implemented then you have to make changes. Unfortunately, as people, we don’t like change and will actively resist it. Here are the four reasons people resist change and what you can do about each of them.
Implementing a new idea means change and, as we all know, change is not something people welcome. In fact, as I discussed in an earlier post on how people deny that change will occur, most people go through a process described by the Change Curve. This process has been compared to what people go through when grieving. And, like denial stage in the grieving process, resistance — the second step in the Change Curve — is unavoidable.

But not all people resist for the same reasons. People, typically, have four reasons to resist change — and all four are interrelated. So, if you want to implement your idea, you’ll have to deal with each individual reason…and your ability to deal with each individual reason will depend on how well you’ve dealt with the other ones.

1. Dealing with Uncertainty

The first reason people resist change is a lack of trust in the people driving the change. This loss of trust occurs because proposing change introduces uncertainty into people’s lives where it didn’t exist before. There are two things that people do when the future is uncertain. First, they replace uncertainty with stuff they make up (I’ve discussed this before in an article about the misinformation that followed Malaysia Flight 370 disappearing). Second, when people make stuff up, they always assume the worst — people assume that there will be problems.

People are not, of course, wrong to assume there will be problems: During any change, there will be turbulence, disruption, and surprises (at least some of which will be unpleasant). Unfortunately, people also assume that whoever is driving the change either doesn’t care about those problems or actually already knows about those problems but is suppressing this information. The result is a loss of trust in the people proposing the change.

To address this loss of trust you need to do three things:

  1. Assure everyone involved that you will tell them everything you can as soon as you can and then, of course, deliver on that promise
  2. Make it clear that if anyone discovers a problem you haven’t addressed, they should get in touch with you immediately and you’ll pass it on immediately
  3. As the change progresses, while you should celebrate any successes, you also need to acknowledge any problems that occur. Even appearing to suppress information will cause a loss of trust

In this process, you also can’t afford to say you don’t know about something that you do, in fact, know about — that’s a lie and when people discover you lied (and they will) you’ll lose trust. If there is something you can’t discuss then you have to say that you can’t discuss it.

2. Telling the Same Story

The second reason people resist change falls out of their attempts to make sense of the change. People try to make sense of the change by applying their own assessments about the value of the change and the reason that the change has been proposed. The result is that, if you talk to several different people about the change, you’ll hear several different stories about what will happen and why it’s happening.  Those differing viewpoints are going to result in different stories circulating about the change. This, of course, creates more uncertainty.

If you’re lucky, people will just assume that there’s no good reason for the change and stories about the change will be neutral. It’s more likely, however, that the stories they’ll hear will be negative ones. Making things worse, different groups will have different viewpoints and different assessments of the change so there will be multiple stories, all negative. You need to get your story out there. In fact, you need a story for each group.

Do these three things to address the multiple, negative stories about the change:

  1. Identify the different groups affected by the change
  2. Craft messages that address each group’s values and viewpoint
  3. Make sure that all of these messages are consistent. If your messages are inconsistent then you’ll simply create more stories about what’s “really” going on

Then you must continually be repeating these messages — in other words, do what you promised when you were building trust (in fact, nothing you say will make any difference if you haven’t established some level of trust with the people involved).  You must also make sure that everyone hears the message directly from you (or some member of the group driving the change). If you don’t reach everyone then people will hear the message from someone else before they hear it from you. As soon as your message passes through even one intermediary, your message will be distorted.

People don’t mean to stand in the way of change. If you take the time to build trust and craft messages targeted for specific groups then you can get people on board. These actions are also just continuations of the tools I discussed in that earlier post for dealing with denial so, if you’ve handled the denial stage right, you’ll already have positioned yourself to handle these first two reasons for resisting change.

3. What’s in It for Me

The third reason that people resist change is that they start looking out for themselves (people exercise self-interest). People are concerned that either during the change or afterward they will be in a worse position than they are right now. And, of course, they may be right: it’s not unusual for there to be some winners and some losers as the result of a change.

Obviously, for the people who will do better, stressing the benefits of the change is the right approach (you’ll have been doing that as part of building trust and dealing with the variety of stories people will have about the change).

For the people who won’t do well as part of the change, you need to:

  1. Craft a message that describes how the negative impacts can be mitigated
  2. Either
    • Have a plan in place to replace these people if they leave before the change is complete
    • Provide an incentive for them to say until the change is complete
  3. Provide those people with a plan for their future after the change, with details about what you’re going to do to help with their transition

You’ll also want to make sure that these people either aren’t in positions where they can prevent the change or are incentivized to ensure that the change is successful.

4. No Change Under Any Circumstances

However, there is a fourth reason people resist change: There are people who have such a low tolerance for change that they are unwilling to change even when the change will benefit them (my wife will tell you that I’m very close to being in this group). The bad news here is that there’s not much you can do about this group.

The only way to reduce resistance from these people is by positioning the change as a “no change” change — that the change won’t, in fact, have much impact on them. If that’s true, you should certainly be one of the messages that you create. If that’s not the case, however, you’ll want to make sure that, like the people actually harmed by the change, these people aren’t in positions where their resistance will derail the change.

In terms of supporting people with a low tolerance for change, the best you can do is provide opportunities for them to vent to someone with a sympathetic ear while constantly emphasizing that the change is inevitable and unavoidable. You can also console yourself with the thought that, while these people don’t like change, this won’t be the first time they’ve had change thrust upon them. This change probably won’t be the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Once you’ve got past denial and resistance you’ll just have got to the point where you can start making your change happen (the next two phases are exploration and commitment and we discuss how to make those work in Learning Tree’s Strategic Thinking for Operational Management course). It would be a mistake to think that you are past resistance and denial, though — people will fall back into both resistance and denial if you stop taking the actions in these two blogs.

But, with these tools, you will, at least, have started implementing your idea.

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