Minimize Resistance to Change

Thursday, January 26, 2017

With all the challenges confronting trainers, there is simply no standing still. At one time or another, all organizations share some common concerns and challenges, such as rebuilding trust, instilling a sense of ownership, shifting their strategic focus, or adapting to new management. The various players in a change situation, including sponsors, change agents, advocates, well-wishers, targets, and bystanders, and how they interact with one another as a change ensues, make the difference between a winning campaign and something less desirable.

On your path to becoming even more effective, recognize that the natural human response to change is resistance. People become attached to familiar ways of doing things, even ways they initially regarded as cumbersome, costly, or ineffective.

Individuals resist change; teams and groups resist change; whole organizations resist change. Going further, entire societies, entire continents, world religions, even the broad swath of humanity reflexively resists change. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that human beings have two modes of thinking: System 1 and System 2. System 2 is our “slow, deliberate, analytical and effortful mode of reasoning about the world. System 1, is our fast, intuitive, and largely unconscious mode of thinking.” System 2 takes a lot more effort and mental energy than System 1. Because making a change requires that we use System 2, it is simply easier to stay with the status quo.

Fear of the Unknown and other Hang-Ups 

Even when an individual knows and understands that a change will be for the better, she is still likely to resist for reasons such as these:

  • Embracing the change will take time, effort, and mental energy that the participants may not be willing to invest. 
  • Taking on something new largely means giving up something else, and that something else is familiar, comfortable, and predictable. 
  • Annoyance or fear of disruption may prohibit people from taking the first step even when it is widely acknowledged that the net result will be to their extreme benefit. 
  • If the change is imposed externally, as opposed to internally derived, resistance may endure as a result of ego-related issues.

Predictable Resistance to Change 

Habit is a powerful thing. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that when we are acting habitually, our minds go into autopilot. Forming a new habit requires us to unlearn the old habit and create different cues and mental pathways for the new way to take hold. Since making change is so difficult, people naturally resist the effort.

As a change manager, you may have observed that the moment people are required to make a change in their behavior, predictable phenomena are likely to occur.

Woe Is Us 

Some people will bemoan what they have to forsake. This occurs even when they didn’t like what they were doing before! People form irrational if fleeting attachments to the way they have been doing things.


Your job is to acknowledge them for the “sacrifice” they will have to make and to commiserate with them for enduring the hardship of changing. Even if you do not intellectually and emotionally agree with another’s viewpoint, give validation to their feelings. This will prove to be a helpful gesture in inducing them to move on to what is next.

This Is So Awkward 

People will naturally feel awkward when they try to embrace the new measure. Some will feel uncomfortable and out of sorts. Others will feel so ill at ease that they may become physically ill. Most will just feel a free-floating anxiety that they can’t explain.

To give you the experience of what it might be like for your employees, if you’re wearing shoes with laces, untie one of them. Now retie the shoe, but switch hands. If you normally hold the strings with your left hand and make the bow with your right hand, hold the strings with your right hand and make the bow with your left hand. This is likely to feel quite awkward.

Alternatively, if you’re wearing a belt, take it off and put it on in the opposite direction, securing it at the same loop as before. You feel different, don’t you? This isn’t the way you wear your belt.

So it is with asking people to incorporate various changes. Nearly all are likely to cause some feeling of awkwardness, even if for a few moments. Some changes will have a lingering effect. Some will make your people feel self-conscious for days on end. An effective change manager anticipates resistance at the outset of a change campaign. He almost welcomes resistance because it’s a sign that the change process is unfolding.

For more guidance on making lasting change in your organization see these ATD resources:

Change Management Certificate

TD at Work: “Breaking the Cycle of Failed Change Management” 

ATD Workshop Series: Change Management Training

About the Author
Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC (aka "The Work-life Balance Expert"®) offers keynote presentations and workshops on a creating work-life balance, managing the pace with grace, and thriving in a hyper-accelerated world. He has spoken to Fortune 50 companies, such as Lockheed and IBM, as well as American Express, Westinghouse, America Online, and Wells Fargo. Jeff also is the author of Simpler Living, Breathing Space, and Dial it Down, Live it Up. His books have been published in 19 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Turkish, and Russian. For more information visit
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