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4 Reasons Why People Resist Change

2022 May 1

Probably the greatest misconception about change is that it fails because people don’t understand it. The truth is that change usually fails because it is actively sabotaged. The status quo has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully. Anytime you ask people to change what they think or how they act, you can expect resistance.

Yet not all resistance is the same. Some people are merely skeptical about change, they are looking for evidence based, rational arguments that the proposed action will achieve positive results. Often, however, resistance is irrational and no amount of evidence will be persuasive. People are actively working to subvert change efforts.

We can’t let our transformation efforts be defined by those who want it to fail. Not everyone will embrace change. Instead of wasting time and effort to convince the opposition, we should focus our efforts on empowering those who want it to succeed. However, we need to learn to recognize different kinds of resistance so that we can address genuine issues.

1. Change Fatigue

In recent years, business pundits have embraced the change gospel. We are told that we live in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). Therefore, we must “innovate or die.” This creates an environment in which leaders have strong incentives to be seen as dynamic change agents who drive multiple initiatives.

Yet the truth is that, for most industries, we live in a decidedly un-VUCA world. In fact, a report from the OECD found that markets, especially in the United States, have become more concentrated and less competitive, with less churn among industry leaders. The number of young firms have decreased markedly as well, from roughly half of the total number of companies in 1982 to one third in 2013.

With so much talk about change, but so little of it actually happening, it shouldn’t be surprising that a study by PwC found that 65% of workers experienced “change fatigue” and that only half felt that their organization had the capabilities to deliver change. In other words, the change gospel is undermining our ability to produce real change!

That’s why in our transformation workshops the very first thing we ask participants to define is the need for change. We simply can’t expect people to get on board with a change initiative if they don’t see a genuine, meaningful problem being solved. Change, for change’s sake, is simply a waste of everybody’s time.

So before you embark on any transformation initiative ask yourself: “Why do we need this change? What problem are we solving? What value would we derive from solving it? Is that value worth disrupting people’s lives and work?

2. Perverse Incentives

Earlier in my career my work focused on turning around media companies in Eastern Europe and I noticed an interesting trend. Managers of sales departments in struggling companies often accounted for the majority of sales (and commissions) in their companies. Because these leaders were seen as major drivers of revenue, they had an enormous amount of power.

The secret to their success had less to do with any actual sales ability and vastly more to do with the fact that, for a variety of reasons, they had managed to get the prime accounts for themselves and, even if they were managing those accounts poorly, had no incentive to spread them around. They were, in effect, being incentivized to mismanage.

The truth is that we’ve known for decades that financial incentives usually backfire. Nevertheless, when we sit down with leaders to define a change strategy they invariably want to start by devising a complex system of “carrots and sticks” to engineer the behavior they want to see and are often disappointed when they are told that it’s a bad idea.

You never want to have to incentivize people to drive change. If an initiative has real value, you should be able to find people who are enthusiastic about it and want to make it work. Even a small initial cadre should be enough to deliver a successful keystone change and get the ball rolling. After that, the issue has more to do with scaling change than anything else.

3. Switching Costs

Every change encounters switching costs. In one particularly glaring example, the main library at Princeton University took 120 years to switch to the Library of Congress classification system because of the time and expense involved. Clearly, that’s an extreme case, but every change effort needs to take inevitable frictions into account.

There are a number of reasons why switching costs can become a significant roadblock. The first is our innate bias for loss aversion. First identified and documented by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, we all have a tendency to avoid losses rather than seek out new gains. The comfort of the status quo can be more powerful than the mysterious promise of transformation.

Another important force is the availability heuristic, which reflects our tendency to overweight information that is most easily accessible. What we experience in the here and now always seems more tangible and concrete than the more distant benefits of change, which many will suspect will never come.

You never want to get bogged down in selling an idea. The switching costs will always be more real to skeptics than any image you can conjure. Rather, you want to identify people who are already enthusiastic about the change and willing to bear any costs associated with switching. If you can empower them to succeed with a keystone change, you can sell that tangible success, which is always a stronger value proposition.

A key thing to remember here is that you shouldn’t have to convince early adopters. If you feel the need to persuade, you either have the wrong change or the wrong people. Find people who are as passionate as you are and show change can work. Then you can start thinking about bringing others in,

4. Identity And Dignity

Gary Starkweather had a big idea, but his boss at Xerox’s Research Center in Webster, NY hated it so much that he threatened to fire anyone who worked on it. To him, Xerox was a copier company and the idea didn’t have anything to do with copiers. Luckily, for Gary and for Xerox, the idea meshed perfectly with the new Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)’s mission and the laser printed he developed there helped save the company.

Xerox PARC has since become almost synonymous with innovation, but even the researchers there could be hostile to ideas that were different. Dick Shoup and Alvy Ray Smith, were working on a new graphics technology called SuperPaint. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit in with PARC’s vision of personal computing and the two became outcasts. Smith would later team up with Ed Catmull and the technology would form the core of what became Pixar.

One of the biggest mistakes change leaders make is assuming that resistance to change has a rational basis. Very often people oppose change because it offends their identity and sense of self. We all take pride in the way we go about things, whether that involves our actions or our way of thinking about things.

This is the most visceral kind of resistance. We can motivate people to push through fatigue or bear the burden of inevitable switching costs, but we can’t ask people to stop being who they think they are. When people see themselves in a particular way, they rarely change and, in fact, will pay almost any price to stay true to their inner core.

What can be hardest about change, especially when we feel passionately about it, is that at some point, we need to accept that others will not embrace it and we will have to leave some behind. Not every change is for everybody. Some will have to pursue a different journey, one to which they can devote their passions and seek out their own truths.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Need to overcome resistance to change? Sign up for the Adopting A Changemaker Mindset Course today!

Image: Pixabay

One Response leave one →
  1. Denis Kelly permalink
    September 4, 2022


    People don’t resist change they just don’t buy-in or commit for many of the reasons you outline. Resistance suggests they are in some way blocking or pushing back. Whats far more common is we, as leaders, are asking them to take a leap into an unclear journey with limited information and most likely little or no input to the change.

    Leaders going at this with a resistance mindset creates further problems and difficulties get embedded. Going at this with a gaining buy-in mindset results in a very different approach with less conflict and far more opportunities to lead rather than push. To travel with supporters rather than hostages.

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