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Seven Reasons Why People Resist Change

by Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Spring 2019 - Resist Change

Resistance to change manifests itself in many ways, from foot-dragging and inertia to petty sabotage to outright rebellion. The best tool for leaders of change is to understand the universal sources of resistance in each situation and then strategize around them. Here are seven that I’ve found to be very common.

Loss of control. Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel that they’ve lost control over their territory. It’s not just political, as in ‘who has the power?’ Our sense of self-determination is often the first thing to go when faced with a potential change coming from someone else. Smart leaders leave room for those affected by change to make choices. They invite others into the planning, giving them ownership.

Excess uncertainty. If change feels like walking off a cliff blindfolded, then people will reject it. People will often prefer to remain mired in misery than to head towards an unknown. As the saying goes, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” To overcome inertia requires a sense of safety as well as an inspiring vision. Leaders should create certainty of process, with clear, simple steps and timetables.

Surprise, surprise! Decisions imposed on people suddenly, with no time to get used to the idea or prepare for the consequences, are generally resisted. Leaders should avoid the temptation to craft changes in secret and then announce them all at once. It’s better to plant seeds — that is, sprinkle hints of what might be coming and seek input.

Everything seems different. We are all creatures of habit, so too many differences can be distracting or confusing. Leaders should try to minimize the number of unrelated differences introduced by a central change. Wherever possible, keep things familiar. Remain focused on the important things and avoid change for the sake of change.

Loss of face. By definition, change represents a departure from the past, so the people associated with the previous iteration — the one that is being superseded — are likely to be defensive about it. Leaders can help people maintain their dignity by celebrating those elements of the past that are worth honouring, and making it clear that the outside world has changed. That makes it easier to let go and move on.

Concerns about competence. Change is resisted when it makes people feel stupid. They might express skepticism about whether the new software will work or whether the change truly represents an improvement, but down deep they are worried that their skills will be obsolete. Leaders should over-invest in structural reassurance, providing abundant information, education, training, mentors and support systems. In my experience, a period of overlap — i.e. running two systems simultaneously — can help to ease transitions.

More work. Change is indeed more work. Those closest to the change in terms of designing and testing it are often overloaded, in part because of the inevitable unanticipated glitches in the midst of it. Leaders should acknowledge the hard work of change by allowing some people to focus exclusively on it, or adding extra perqs for participants. 

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business at Harvard Business School. She is also Director and Chair of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative.

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This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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