Do People Always Resist Change?

Do people always resist change? That is the accepted starting point for much of the literature on organizational leadership and change — that resistance is inevitable, and that it must be overcome by various tactics such as communication, training, and enlisting influential leaders within a company to sponsor the change and be cheerleaders for it. According to statistics on major corporate change programs, as many as 70 percent of them fail or underperform because of cultural resistance.

But this sense of inevitable resistance to change isn’t quite right. Change is constant in life. People buy new cars or smartphones and computers requiring a significant learning period to use them properly. People also leave home, get married, have children, move and change jobs. It isn’t true to say that human beings are genetically constituted to resist change; sometimes we seek it out.

The Emphasis on Control
Why do people embrace change in one situation and resist it in another? One part of the answer is that, as Peter Bregman wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” This is at least partly true. If people are in control — relatively speaking — making their own choices on their own terms, they seek out new experiences not only willingly but often with excitement and even joy.

Bregman, CEO of change management consulting company Bregman Partners Inc., presents a number of tactics and approaches to help managers give employees a degree of control during times of major change. For instance, avoid the appearance of being merely coercive while maintaining necessary accountability as the person whose neck may be on the line for producing results.
Another approach is to give a team an overall goal to achieve, and provide one potential path toward that goal. Then be open to the team’s ideas about other ways to achieve the same goal.

Another tactic is to avoid the usual change management activities to achieve buy-in from employees. Instead, Bregman said to actively work to uncover disagreements, then use those as a source of new ideas and a way to give workers more participation and accountability.

Neuroscience offers a scientific perspective on change management and human capital management. According to this branch of personal and organizational psychology, a deeper understanding of brain structures — and, by extension, of stimuli and activities that are essential to healthy human functioning — can provide corporate leaders with insights into better people management.

Erika Tierney Garms, owner and principal consultant of consultancy Garms Group Inc., provides a summary in a 2013 article, “How Could Neuroscience Change the Way We Manage Change.” Some of her insights:

• Organizational change disrupts the pecking order of reporting structures. Assurance about our status is important to our brains, so new roles need to be clarified quickly.
• Certainty is the most common unmet need, so executives need to share as much information as they can with the workforce.
• The feeling of helplessness during major periods of change can produce apathy and depression, so it’s essential to show people where they still have autonomy.
• People need to feel comfortable in their relationships, so reinforce pre-existing group relationships whenever possible.

These insights all boil down to some aspect of control: a need to know the new reporting structures, a need for accurate information, a need to know where we stand and need for control over old, comfortable relationships.

But what if control is not possible or is illusory? What if seeking that control actually interferes with a person’s ability to adapt to change? Change that occurs within organizations is not something the rank and file initiate for personal benefit. Decision-makers can take certain tactics, as discussed, to offer a bit of personal control back to people, but it’s more akin to being offered a life raft in a great sea that is beyond the average person’s ability to steer alone.

Acceptance and Adaptability
Another long-standing tradition of thought — going back to ancient religious writings and progressing through modern psychotherapy and on to adaptations such as 12-step programs — takes a different tack on this matter. It says the key to coping with change, or with the vagaries of the world — is not control but acceptance.

The word “Islam,” for example, literally means “acceptance” or “surrender.” Christianity teaches various forms of giving up or “dying” to the self in surrender. Buddhism stresses the need to “let go” of craving and attachments, grasping the paradox that accepting painful emotions rather than resisting or avoiding them actually eases the effect of the pain.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a similar emphasis in which people acknowledge a power beyond themselves and admit to their own relative powerlessness.

In psychotherapy, movements such as dialectical behavior therapy attempt to overcome the limits of other therapies that overemphasize the need to change by using an approach that balances the need to change and acceptance of who people are.

In none of these cases is acceptance equal to resignation or defeat. Instead, it can be summed up by the meditation most often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

What these traditions can teach business executives is that the best intentions to offer the workforce a sense of control in the face of major change may in fact increase resistance rather than lessen it by giving people the illusion they have more power than they really do. It is by accepting that there are things we cannot change, things we do not have power over, that we develop adaptive behaviors.

If people think they are in control, even to some degree, why change? A parable made popular by Stephen Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” explains the matter: The captain of a huge battleship received a signal from what he thought was another craft in his path; he radioed the other to tell it to change course. The response: “No, suggest you change course.” After arguing back and forth, the ship’s captain finally learned the truth — he was radioing with someone in a lighthouse. The captain changed course.

Putting Change Into Practice
The aforementioned insights do translate into talent management practices. Here are a few ideas:

Cope with change as loss. Certain kinds of corporate change need to be seen as beyond anyone’s control, as a kind of death or loss that elicits grief. Examples might include a beloved boss or co-worker’s departure or retirement, significant layoffs or being acquired by another company. Leaders need to acknowledge the significance of such events and not try to put a good face on it. In these cases, programs are available based on books such as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying” that can help people move through the stages of grief, which end with acceptance.

If it’s the literal death of a co-worker, attending the funeral is important. Humans created rituals to acknowledge particular moments as sacred in some way, marking the moments so people could then adapt and move on.

If it’s a retirement or other kind of departure, create a ritual: a farewell dinner outside of the office where people can stand and speak about what the departing person meant to them. Raising a wine glass in toast and tribute is a ritual that goes back many thousands of years.

Create balanced leaders. Effective leaders need to be able to model the balance between change and acceptance. It can be comforting to employees when a boss simultaneously acknowledges there are things happening over which he or she has no control — acceptance — while also demonstrating there are actions to be taken that can create opportunity from the change — adaptability.

Marvin Zonis, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, specializes in topics such as leadership and international political economy. He offered a number of insights into the characteristics of this kind of leader.

He said one is basic honesty, because people almost always know when a leader is not being fully truthful. Being honest about things we cannot change and then being courageous about the things we can change is part of the authenticity essential to good leadership.

A second characteristic is the willingness to be challenged and to challenge themselves. “If leaders cannot handle being challenged about their thinking,” Zonis said, “or if they are not willing to challenge themselves by changing routines or simply by engaging in continuous learning, they will have a hard time modeling adaptability.”

Finally, Zonis encourages executives to nourish a sense of wonder. “Go on a hike in the mountains or a sailing trip on the open sea, or go to a zoo and reflect on things. Or simply look at that small smartphone in your hand and realize that only a few decades ago, that kind of computing power took up several large rooms in an office building.” The point is to keep a kind of childlike spirit alive, because it carries an associated ability to be more malleable and adaptive.

In the end, healthy people and healthy organizations know what they do and do not have power over. They know they are not helpless, that innovators and people of courage always have been able to create significant change. But they are also wise enough to know when acceptance of the way things are offers an opportunity to adapt and grow.

Craig Mindrum is president of Mindrum Strategy, a consulting and communications company. His most recent book is “Return on Learning.” He can be reached at