How to effectively manage resistance to change

Resistance to Change

How to effectively manage resistance to change

Trust is a catalyst for change. In our previous blog of the series, we discussed how Trust changes everything. So why do people and organisations continue to resist change?

There are numerous change models out there, many will tell you that it’s a strong vision, a clear plan, good communication and the celebration of quick wins that help drive organisational change. Yes, it is all those things but fundamentally the ease and overall effectiveness of change depends on the levels of trust among the team, between employees and leaders, and between the organisations and its customers.

Trust can be positive or negative. Positive trust yields a dividend of increased productivity.  High trust organisations are more than 2.5 times more likely to also be leaders in terms of revenue growth. Conversely negative trust imposes a “trust” tax. (Covey).

Employees with low levels of trust have a higher tendency to view the organisation negatively. If your employees don’t trust the leadership or the organisation itself, then the most obvious place that will show itself is in the support of change.

One in three people don’t trust their leaders according to 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer

Resistance to change has traditionally been thought of as inevitable, as an aspect of change which is unpalatable and must be dealt with.

In an article for the Academy of Management Review, Sandy Piderit argues that negative responses to change can be motivated by positive intentions, and that what organisations need is ambivalence. This is not a ‘don’t care’ attitude, but a nuanced response that holds the pros and cons simultaneously she says, “Even if they only see employees who oppose change as short sighted, managers are tempted by the language of resistance to treat their subordinates as obstacles”.

Also appearing in the Academy of Management Review, Jeffrey Ford, Laurie Ford and Angelo d’Amelio makes three valuable suggestions, culminating in the suggestion that resistance can be a good thing.


  1. First, they suggest that a lot of what we describe as resistance is merely an interpretation that change-makers place on responses that have their own motivations, but may not be motivated by opposition. They call this sense-making and attribute it in part to the phenomenon of ‘getting’ what we look for. We expect resistance (because we think it is inevitable) and so interpret what we get as resistance. Indeed, they go on to suggest that framing behaviours as resistance is self-serving in that it ‘excuses’ defensive responses by the change agents, and can also set up an excuse for problems and setbacks in the change process.


  1. Their second suggestion takes this further, in suggesting that change agents themselves contribute to resistance by damaging trust and not encouraging the best possible communication. Hence my golden rule for handling resistance: I will always respect my resisters. Indeed, Ford and d’Amelio go further and argue that change agents often amplify resistance by resisting it themselves. This is how conflict can arise, whether by active, combative resistance to the resistance, or by avoidance and disengagement.


  1. Their third suggestion turns the tables and argues, as I do, that resistance is a resource. Handled well, the conversations it creates can boost engagement and contribute to better solutions. Conflict, when managed well, can improve decision-making.


In your own organisation how much time and effort goes into diagnosing resistance to change and identifying ways to overcome it? I see resistance as an opportunity to build trust.

In times of change employees’ needs for certain things comes into sharp focus. These needs include:

  • Reliability – the organisation does what it says it will do
  • Clarity– the direction and way forward is clear
  • Reassurance – the personal impact of change is clear, and support is available
  • Honest and open communication– no fudge


Interestingly these are also the cornerstones of trustworthiness as posited by John Blakey in his excellent book “The Trusted Executive”. Imagine the difference if, instead of viewing employees as negative obstacles, Leaders took the opportunity to hear and respond to these needs. There is no doubt that it would have a significant impact on the effectiveness of change efforts.

See the previous blog of our Trust Leadership series on how trust changes everything. Next up Is Trust overrated?

Struggling to know where to start to build or enhance trust? Download our assessment infographic on how to build trust within your organisation.

Mary Lynch

Mary is a senior consultant with over 16 years’ experience. Mary specialises in the areas of Organisational Development, Change Management, Performance Management, Leadership and Coaching.

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