ATD Blog

How to Handle Employee Resistance to Structural Changes in Organizations

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

There have been many publications about how to deal with and facilitate corporate change, and just as many claiming that the majority of change efforts fail. Many blame failures on organizational culture, insufficient communication, or poor strategic decisions. Regardless of the cause, we are sure to experience employee resistance to change. So what can we do to decrease resistance and increase the probability for success in implementing change initiatives?

To better understand why employees resist change, Antonia Mercedes García-Cabrera and Fernando García-Barba (2014) unpacked the most common forms of employee resistance: resistant thought, resistant feeling, and resistant behavior. The authors surveyed 143 employees working in seven different large companies in Spain, all implementing similar types of organizational structural changes in which the proposed changes affected these employees and required their commitment and participation for successfully implementation. After studying three key variables affecting employee resistance, they found the following results.

Perceived Benefits, Including Sense of Job and Emotional Security

Increased job security and economic rewards did reduce resistant thought and behavior. However, only when the employees perceived that their social relationships would be preserved did resistant feelings decrease. Employees often find emotional support through their social relationships. Therefore, knowing that their social network will be sustained seemed to reduce resistance to the organization’s structural changes.

Communication PLUS Participation Is the Key

Disseminating information about the reasons and process for change did tend to reduce fear and increase positive feelings, with less effect on reported behaviors. However, receiving both effective communication, plus being actively involved in the change efforts, did have significant effects on reducing their resistant behaviors. In fact, employee participation was the greatest factor in reducing all three forms of resistance.


Moderating Effects of Organization-Based Self-Esteem (OBSE)

When employees perceived themselves to be competent and valuable to their organization, they maintained more positive thoughts, feelings and behavior, and tended to express lower resistance regarding the change initiative. OBSE had greater impact on one’s response to change than did their reaction to perceived benefits.

However, job security was still a major factor in reducing resistance to change for most employees in this sample of Spanish employees. This may be due to the fact that Spain has relatively high levels of uncertainty avoidance. Further investigation is needed to extend these findings to individuals and cultures with a lower level of uncertainty avoidance.



According to the research, here are several preparations that can help reduce resistance to change.

  • Actively involve a team of high profile employees to identify benefits that actually matter to your employees. This is especially important when differing cultures are involved. Since different perceived benefits affect different facets of resistance, introduce and communicate a combination of perceived benefits. Use your employee team to act as champions for those benefits and the overall change initiative.
  • Respect employees’ social relationships when designing structural changes! Identify and use existing social networks when designing future organizational structures, and to communicate your change efforts. Employees find strength and support from each other, especially critical during time of stress. Breaking these social bonds may increase resistance, and possibly invite sabotage.
  • Provide employees with social opportunities and team development activities with new team members PRIOR to implementing proposed changes, especially when structural changes will result in employees changing departments or teams.
  • Implementing these three previous steps will demonstrate organizational support for employees, and help increase Organization-based Self-Esteem (OBSE), an important antecedent for all three facets of employee support. Develop and support employees’ OBSE early and gradually, since self-esteem builds over time.

For more details on this study, access the original Human Resource Development Quarterly article by Antonia Mercedes García-Cabrera, Fernando García-Barba Hernández. Jossey-Bass/Wileys is offering free access to the article for a limited time.

García-Cabrera, A. M., & García-Barba Hernández, F. (2014). Differentiating the Three Components of Resistance to Change: The Moderating Effect of Organization-Based Self-Esteem on the Employee Involvement-Resistance RelationHuman Resource Development Quarterly, 25(4), 441-469. doi:10.1002/hrdq.21193

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of articles highlighting research from the journals of the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD). In partnership with ATD, AHRD is committed to sharing useful research with the practitioner community. 

About the Author

Carol B. Packard is an organizational psychologist with a PhD in human resource development and a MSEd psychology, specializing in performance management, program evaluation, organizational and team development. Currently, Carol serves as a senior advisor for Endeavor Management/Gelb Consultants, as well as principal consultant with Human Assets International. 

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