Equilibrium Institute- Delivering Core Intelligence

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Transforming Change Resistance Within Organizations

By R. A. Jackson 2012

Walden University bandsthatrock@gmail.com




     Leadership to facilitate change should include assessment, planning, acting, and evaluating (Burke, 2011).  While some change may be completed on a timeline, the psychological ramifications are often longer lasting (Burke, 2011).  Relationship strength between leaders and followers (Furst and Cable, 2008) and attitudes (Burke, 2011 p.36) are very important in group process in determining the levels of cooperation in working towards change in organizations. 




    This paper is a brief literature review concerned specifically with explaining some aspects of resistance to change within organizations and how to mitigate such resistance. 


     U.S. culture is diverse, and our appreciation of individuality and rebelliousness in my opinion helps explain why our traditions of democracy and liberal tolerances inspire  debates that continue to produce substantial results that challenge us from bottom up and from top down.  The paradigms of resistance or non-cooperation therefore could be agued to be equal in importance to cooperation.  Though cooperation and peace are generally more favorable and stable than resistance, and often less painful on both psychological and physical spectrums.  Moderation and effective management is key where harvesting constructive contributions of conflict is concerned.       



     The functions of ego and super ego are to aide individual survival and preserve social order found to advance society in the midst of chaos.  Conformity, obedience, and the need for acceptance; positive status, the influences of peer leaders- especially informal leaders, may clearly impact levels of resistance or cooperation in times of significant change.  Other variable of influence such as what formal leaders requests and what is at stake all weigh in on the Stimulus Response scale. 


Aspects of resistance to change


     In summary, resistance to change stems from emotional sources or “human personality” (Oreg & Benson n.d.).  There is abundant data on loss, such as Levinson (1976) or Brehm’s (1966) theory of Psychological reactance (Burke 2011 p.108.)  Whether it is values or “honest intellectual differences or genuine beliefs…” the motives of resistance are varied in context and situational and can span from being highly individualized to highly organized and uniquely or broadly expressed. 


     Wanberg & Banas found “the more organizational members tended to be optimistic, possessed high self-esteem, or had high locus of control, the more open to and supportive of change they were (Burke, 2011 P. 111).


     Additionally traits of people presented with change can impact how they respond.  For example, “conversion versus renewal preferences” are attitudes that can generally imply openness or tendencies to resist significant change.  Furthermore, “values influence interpretation of events, attitudes, as well as choices and behaviors (e.g. Bardi & Schwartz, 2003 ; Oreg & Nov, 2008) (Oreg & Berson n.d.) However, there are instances when beliefs and behaviors are juxtaposed, especially when people retire beliefs found no longer useful when adjusting and or processing new evidences.  Using values as a prediction instrument for resistance may therefore under-estimate other compounding variable that explain human behavior.  Inertia theory and logistical/ physical resource barriers to change are additional considerations (Burke, 2011). 


      Attribution theory, “the logic of reaction…to…influence” suggests the quality of interpersonal relationships impacts the rate of influence (Furst & Cable, 2008 p. 453.)


Ways to address resistance


     Trust and power distance are correlated to how people respond. (Furst & Cable, 2008 p.459)  If relationships between leader and followers are strong then targeted consultation, ingratiation can reduce resistance, but if relationship are weak those same tactics can have the opposite effect.  Legitimization is suspect when relationships are weak and the use of sanctions by leaders was found to strengthen resistance when the leader follower relationship is weak (Furst & Cable , 2008 p.457).    


     Burke (2011) suggests proper diagnosis, not treating the symptom, but addressing causes, proper sequence for the situation, context and situation analysis, adequate resources, measurable successes, commitment from leader, good communication such as vision rationale, walking the talk, involving others, all helps to combat inertia.  Considerations for the organizational culture, being prepared to address apathy, turf wars, providing “compelling case for change” were advised (Burke, 2011 CH 6 & 11).  Burke shares O’toole stated that the change leader should, “show a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo,” and then change it”  (Burke 2011 p. 272).  He further recommends the change leader align their values with the organizations cultural norms and values (Burke, 2011 p. 274).


     One way to address resistance is to prevent it.  Burke delineates that the use of selection, staff reductions, consolidations, training, negotiation, support for stress, patience, displacement, coaching, pilot projects, fostering best practices, new leadership, strong persuasion based on facts, substance and careful prediction and respecting resistance are all ways to successfully mitigate resistance to change (Burke, 2011 p. 102-111).


     Burke conveyed to convince advantages of change are greater than cost of change and advantages are “desired sufficiently to outweigh the efforts required to make the transition are people likely to embrace the change willingly” (Burke, 2011 P.110).


     If Wamberg and Banas findings are valid, then it appears resistance to change can be predicted in advance to surface more in members with low self esteem and external locus of control.  Perhaps people in that category compensate and have less healthy ways of responding to change because they lack healthy role models or transfer their internal struggle outward on the world around them in an attempt to find self-worth or mask feeling of inferiority. 


     Murray and Richardson (2003) discuss winning condition for change in their article Fast Forward.  Oreg and Benson suggest, “by setting performance expectations that correspond with their value systems, leaders shape employees attitudes and behaviors (Oreg and Benson Leader Characteristics Para 2).


     Oreg and Benson’s research results implicate leaders characteristics and behavior i.e. openness to change influences followers to lower resistance. They concluded a transformative leadership style produced, “adjustment in relationships between followers personality and their reaction to the organizational reform.” However, expectancy theory and the question of whether voluntary participation in a study within a specific culture and single system provided definitive results is raised.  Replicating the study more broadly and diversifying the environment would help clarify the reliability of Oreg and Benson’s findings. 




     Based on the research reviewed it appears nurturing an openness towards change, and managing stress internally and externally where relevant, and providing ways for people to be involved are important tools to manage resistance to change.  The strategies listed above in this paper would be used based on assessments that determine details such as context, situation, goals and strategies and or available resources because these strategies were found through research or observed experiences to be options that led to prior successes. 




Burke, W., (2011). Organization change theory and practice. Los Angeles: Sage.

Furst, S. & Cable, D., (2008). Employee resistance to organizational change: managerial influence tactics and leader-member exchange. Journal of Applied Psychology. 93(2), 453–462. APA DOI:10.1037/0021-9010.93.2.453

Murray, E., & Richardson, P. (2003). Fast forward: A new framework for rapid organizational change. Ivey Business Journal, 67(6), 1–5.


Oreg, S., & Berson, Y. (2009). Leader’s characteristics and behaviors and employees resistance to organizational change. Academy of Management Proceedings, 1–6.