There isn’t a communication professional alive who hasn’t been confronted with resistance in some form or another. In fact, comms pros are often called in to prevent or minimize resistance to upcoming transformations. However, they’re called in to clean up after big and small projects alike have come off the rails.

Resistance no longer


Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse

If you’re ever in a meeting and leaders use any of these three familiar phrases be forewarned! They are expecting serious resistance…and they’re expecting you, the communications professional, to address it:

  1. Change management
  2. Change behavior
  3. New process roll-out

All Too Human

Let’s start by acknowledging that resistance is NOT automatically the same thing as defiance. Yes, resistance can be active – meaning that employees speak and act against a proposed change (overtly or covertly). Furthermore, employees can indeed influence others to resist, or find ways to have proposed changes overturned, delayed or modified.

However, in the vast majority of organizations, resistance is more frequently passive —  where employees remain silent about their views or appear to agree to changes but then don’t fully embrace them.

And let’s also acknowledge that resistance is a very human response to what happens in organizations.

Inadvertent Triggers

So, let’s talk about what organizations – in their quest to grow, stay competitive, remain viable – inadvertently do to amp up employees’ severity, duration and frequency of resistance. Any of these situations increases resistance to change among some, or all segments of employees:

  • Don’t involve employees in the change…which makes employees feel less important
  • Sustain poor/unsafe working conditions…which erodes trust in, and emotional connection to, the organization
  • Go silent so that employees don’t have an appreciation for the problems/opportunities facing the organization
  • Don’t address organizational cynicism (i.e., let harmful rumors circulate and go unanswered)
  • Don’t provide adequate employee support for important initiatives — including development of technical skills or coping skills

And if that wasn’t enough of a danger list, other characteristics of work environments contribute to employees’ natural resistance to change, including the following:

  • High level of job insecurity
  • When organizations don’t share the rationale/status for proposed changes
  • When organizations don’t address lack of perceived injustice (i.e., when they show favoritism)
  • When organizations or don’t address high levels of ambiguity

Do I hear a cry for an easy to use tool?

In our workshops and consulting engagements, we use several tools to gauge resistance and help communications professionals anticipate, manage and address resistance. One tool that you can start with is the Knoster framework which is a quick (but meaty) diagnostic.

What’s great about the Knoster framework is that it helps Fearless Communicators identify, at a high level, those elements that are, or will contribute to, resistance.

Nothing to Fear Here

We can’t discuss the topic of employee resistance to change without also acknowledging that resistance isn’t solely driven because of what an organization is, or isn’t, doing well. In other words, we also must think about individual factors

That’s why anticipating and planning for resistance in organizations is messy and time-consuming. After all, most leaders (and Fearless Communicators) have little or no organizational psychology background. But let’s take a moment and call out some of things that, while they reside in the individual, can indeed be shaped by organization leaders, managers and well-designed communications processes.

For instance, resistance isn’t caused because of a fear of change. Rather, it’s a fear of loss. And, in organizations that may be a fear of losing:

  • Power or position (real or perceived)
  • Competence (and fear of punishment)
  • Personal identity/job
  • Group membership or social ties

The loss of social ties is one of the most powerful reasons for resistance to change. Yet, organizations never seem to twig to that in their pre, during or post-evaluation of any change. So, make sure you evaluate the extent to which the change being planned or implemented disrupts social relationships..

The Resistance Equation

Finally, we must speak to the benefits and pains of accepting change. Specifically: the benefit of adopting a new change/behavior must be greater than the pain involved in doing that behavior. Everyone gets that, right? That’s the part of the “resistance equation” everyone understands.

But there’s a second part that needs to be addressed. Specifically, the pain associated with sticking with the old behavior must be greater than the pain of adopting the new change. Unfortunately, organizations tend to deal with only the first part of the equation and then get frustrated because they’ve focused so much on the upside of the proposed change (as opposed to eliminating the reinforcement of unwanted behaviors).

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