strategy+business is published by PwC Strategy& LLC.
or, sign in with:
strategy and business
 / Winter 1996 / Issue 2(originally published by Booz & Company)


Another Reason Why Companies Resist Change

Organizational changes often progress the same way--think of the excitement that immediately follows the announcement of a major merger and how that can give way to a realization that the promised "synergy" just doesn't exist.

Figure II shows the negative case--the way people react when they view the change as a bad idea. It is based on the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her 1969 book, "On Death and Dying," which identified the stages that terminal patients go through. These stages can be adapted to our organizational change projects:


© ODR, all rights reserved, 1995

  • Stability--This phase precedes the announcement of the change and represents the status quo.
  • Immobilization--The initial reaction to a negatively perceived change is shock. The change may appear to be so unreal that the person can't even fathom it.
  • Denial--"If I ignore it, it will go away." The person is hoping the change project is not real.
  • Anger--This phase is characterized by frustration that often becomes real and directed at other employees.
  • Bargaining--Here, people begin negotiating ways to minimize the impact of the change. These might include requests for deadline extensions, modifications to the change initiative or even reassignment.
  • Depression--Once the bargaining has failed, a person often gets depressed at the realization that the change is real and permanent. On the plus side, this represents the beginning of acceptance.
  • Testing--Similar to bargaining, except that the person is accepting the change and figuring out how to succeed under new conditions.
  • Acceptance--Completion of the change.

Lesson #3--Resistance can be overt or covert. In the example above, our accountant was expressing overt resistance. He displayed some courage in speaking out against the change in a meeting of peers and superiors, especially since the presentation was going forward so well. Far more dangerous is covert resistance. We have all been in meetings where people agree with a change and congratulate each other on the group's collective wisdom--only to watch them go back to their offices to tell their peers what a dumb idea they have just wasted time discussing. This covert resistance is impossible to manage, because it can't be confronted.

Lesson #4--What they say may not be what they mean. Recall that our reaction to change is governed by our perceived loss of control. However, we are rarely comfortable expressing honest emotions in a corporate setting. As a result, our accountant who disagreed with the analysis based on omission of his spreadsheets may really be saying, "I knew how to play by the old process rules, and I'm scared that I may not be as successful under the new process." So, even if we address the stated issue (the spreadsheets), we might not be addressing the real cause of his resistance.

Now what?
The key to managing resistance is sincere selling. This approach addresses all the issues we have raised about resistance:

  • It recognizes the inevitability of resistance, so it addresses resistance honestly and consistently.
  • It acknowledges that resistance will be experienced differently based on positive or negative reactions to change.
  • It reflects how resistance can be expressed overtly or covertly and advocates that overt resistance be encouraged, to get problems out in the open.
  • It warns that people may not be comfortable expressing their true reasons for resistance and encourages creating an atmosphere that allows honest communication.

In the early stages of a change project, when enthusiasm is high, sincere selling helps minimize the impact of uninformed optimism with a true accounting of what the likely costs of the change will be. While this may cause many change projects to die on the drawing board, that is a better outcome than having the project fail in implementation.

Also, the "sincere seller" will work on team communication to insure that employees understand what the change project entails and feel comfortable expressing honest resistance openly. This level of communication will also enable managers to understand whether employees are having a positive or negative reaction to the change.

Finally, sincere selling means that throughout the change process, we are consistently working with employees to help them understand the individual implications of our change initiatives so that we can recognize the resistance, surface it, manage it and get it behind us.

The accountant's story has a happy ending. As it turns out, the real concern was that the new information technology would make his job redundant. Once he understood that his analyses would actually become part of the new technology--and that he would get enough training to be successful--the resistance disappeared.

Reprint No. 96101

Many of the ideas in this article are adapted from "Managing at the Speed of Change" by Daryl R. Conner (1992, Villard Books)

Follow Us 
Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google Plus YouTube RSS strategy+business Digital and Mobile products App Store


Sign up to receive s+b newsletters and get a FREE Strategy eBook

You will initially receive up to two newsletters/week. You can unsubscribe from any newsletter by using the link found in each newsletter.