“Change and resistance go hand in hand: change implies resistance and resistance means that change is taking place” (Gravenhorst, 1993).This definition exemplifies the importance of the human element in organisations as it is this constituent that ultimately becomes the face of any organisation.Due to the difficult economic and political situation nationally and internationally, many organisations have changed their working practices; it has never been more vital for managers to handle change effectively by avoiding common errors made by change agents and become what Tushman and O’Reilly call an “Ambidextrous Organisation”.
Implementing change in organisations has proved to be a lot tougher than originally thought, as success depends on the stakeholders involved in the process, the organisational context for facilitating change, as well as many other internal and external factors. This essay will argue the most difficult aspect of organisation change is the human element in change processes, due to the emotional dimension that humans bring with them into organisational life.
This essay will first will discuss change resistance generally, stating reasons why people resist change and offering ideas for how to overcome resistance. Then the impact of emotions will be dealt with: why they are important in change processes referring to scholarly texts and theories. The last sub-section of the essay will address group level factors, making distinctions between different types of groups and teams. A discussion and analysis on group norms and how they can prove to be problematic will follow. Finally, solutions will be provided for combating group factors of resistance and how they can be seen as an opportunity to oversee past management behaviour. The conclusion will reiterate the main arguments put forward and will summarise the essay findings.
What is Resistance to Change?
From an internal point of view, resistance to change is situated at individual and group levels. Beer and Nohria (2000) argue that 70 per cent of change programs fail because of a lack of strategy and vision, inadequate communication and trust, poor commitment from top management, a lack of resources, poor change management skills, and resistance to change from within organisations. Resistance to change inside organisations has been understated in the past, and many organisations continue to neglect emphasis on the internal factors of change. “Resistance towards change encompasses behaviours that are acted out by change recipients in order to slow down or terminate an intended organisational change” (Lines, 2004, cited in Hughes, 2010, p 33). This quote exemplifies that behaviours of change recipients play a key role in the implementation of change, which can act as a barrier during transition processes. Resistance to change can be defined in many different ways, but traditionally ‘resistance’ is experienced negatively in organisations, with management viewing resistance as a stumbling block, delaying mechanism, and enemy of necessary changes. However, Ford and Ford (2009) and Waddell and Sohal (1998) have argued that the way managers interpret resistance is wrong and posit that in many cases management do not truly understand such behaviour, instinctively interpreting objections as a form of resistance from employees. This point has validity since it is very common for managers to see any form of feedback as resistance from their subordinate counterparts (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999).
Why Resistance Occurs
Resistance to change occurs for many reasons, whether at the individual or group level. The first point to consider is whether change processes benefit employees or not. There are such cases where change is structured in favour of employees, but where the change is still resisted. This type of self-sabotaging behaviour can be directly related to organisational misunderstanding and a lack of trust between staff and management (Kotter and Schlesinger, 1979). The word change itself is defined in such a way so as to bring an element of surprise to organisational structure and processes – altering the status quo (Hughes, 2010 p.164). Whenever changing a process, there will always be a sense of anxiety and fear amongst recipients, especially if organisations have previously failed in adopting to change and implementing new practices (Hughes, 2010). This will increase the likelihood of change resistance from the shop-floor, regardless of the change proposals put forward. Change agents often unintentionally alienate employees in the decision making process, acting without the consent of other groups within the organisation and assuming they have all the knowledge needed for implementing the best changes (Ford and Ford, 2009 and D’Amelio, 2008). Fransella (1975, p135) states individuals have to negotiate and manage change on a daily basis; this point validates the argument of Ford that resistance will occur if there is no input from the employee perspective. Kotter and Schlesinger (1979) have, in their work, noted four common factors as to why individuals resist change: self-interest, misunderstanding and lack of trust, different assessments of the changes most needed, and a low tolerance to change. Parochial self interests are a very common reason for resistance since loss is always a difficult acceptance. Therefore, individuals will always try their utmost to keep what they have, and in an organisational context Zaltman and Duncan (1977) view threats to power and influence as one of the most important sources of resistance to change.
How to Manage Resistance
Managing resistance to change can be very problematic, the reason being that managers have a tendency to view resistance as something oppositional, dangerous or purely self-serving (Brown and Humphreys, 2006). However, if managers adopt new behaviour patterns, dealing with resistance from an optimistic perspective where feedback loops can be seen as a positive means for discussion amongst employees and management (Ford and Ford, 2009), then stronger relationships can begin to be built across organisational hierarchies, and change can be more effectively managed. Seeing resistance from a more favourable perspective allows change agents to hear concerns and advice from change recipients, and it also gives employees the opportunity to address entrenched problems such as a lack of communication between management and employees and ineffective organisational practices that continue to survive. However, such harmonious outcomes are easier espoused than achieved; since management is intrinsically suspicious of giving over power, and placating disenchanted workers has proven to be a difficult task in the past (Coghlan, 1994). Cialdini (2001) suggests six principles of persuasion, based on communications which are very effective. Cialdini states that every leader has to harness the art of persuasion in order to win people over and overcome resistance to change, without creating negative feedback. However, management behaviour has proven to be a very path dependant model, where radical change is needed to convince people that past events will not reoccur. As soon as management behaviour has changed, it is vital to make new incentives achievable, where benefits and outcomes are in tandem and there is no confusion or lack of knowledge on the part of employees that would inhibit them from delivering satisfactory outcomes (Vroom, 1964).
Role of Emotions in Change Processes
Emotions and responses to change can be so intensive that the literature in organisational change has compared them with individual responses to traumatic changes such as death and grief (Grant, 1996; Elrod and Tippet, 1988; Kubler-Ross, 1969). Emotions are such that they are experienced by everyone, mainly by individuals but also collectively in groups as well as by change agents themselves. This point is consistent with Myers et al.’s (2010) claim that “emotions are not just experienced by those on whom change is imposed on; those who lead change may experience transitions as equally emotional” (p. 63). From an organisational perspective, emotions play a key role; they can directly affect performance and emotions have an impact on the overall culture within organisations (Hofstede, 1989).
Organisational change can be seen as either a challenge or an opportunity; triggering positive emotions such as excitement and anticipation or negative feelings such as fear, anxiety and the anticipation of a tangible threat to the material position of staff within an organisation. The challenge for change agents is to carefully manage such emotions to ensure that they do not affect the transition process change entails. Negative emotions have proven in the past to be a major hurdle in organisational change (Hofstede, 1989). The impact of negative change will leave an impact on the collective morale of staff, which can be an obstacle for future successful change processes.
‘Emotional contagion’ is also an important unintended consequence of change and little explored facet of organisational life to be highlighted here. It refers to situations when “emotions can be directly picked up from other people” (Myers et al, 2012 p. 66). In other words, emotions can initiate and spread amongst all members of an organisation, for example if organisational change has adverse effects on a few individuals, their negative emotions will affect their peers. Therefore, emotions can move from individuals to other individuals, and as a result become an influential group dynamic and even epidemic.
Emotion Coping Cycle
To understand emotions from a theoretical perspective, the works of Elizabeth Kubler Ross (1969) are informative to the debate. She puts forward six stages of emotional responses that effect individuals; her work is especially relevant to organisational change discourses since employees and change agents go through similar stages of emotions during periods of change and transition. Mark and Mirvis’ 1992 study based on a failed merger of two computer companies is also an intriguing example of emotional interplay and its role within organisational change. Mark and Mirvis discovered individuals involved in the merger feared a loss of control, ‘unknowns’ associated with their new work responsibility, and also how they would be judged in the future.
Since organisations often use mergers as a cost cutting strategy, likely resulting in people being made redundant, such negative emotions associated with mergers are founded on previous experience and hence validated. During the redundancy process, employees affected will go through stages where emotions vary Ross (1969). From an appraisal theory perspective, individuals affected will make their own interpretation of events and emotions will trigger behaviour.
It is vital for change agents to possess excellent communication skills in order to manage the emotional cycle individuals will likely go through as the anxiety of the merger spreads amongst employees (Mark and Mirvis, 1992). The most dangerous stage of the redundancy process is the depression stage, which can take months to subside, especially if the redundancy is not effective immediately. Change agents need to deploy sympathetic communication methods and be reasonable in explaining why change is taking place by taking blame away from the individual and ensuring employees move to the acceptance stage as fast as possible.
Solutions (Emotional Intelligence)
Emotional Intelligence encompasses a multi-dimensional framework of thought which raises awareness, facilitation, knowledge and regulation of emotions. Emotional intelligence allows individuals to form substantiated, reasoned opinions about emotions during periods of transition without allowing emotions to turn their subjectivity against their goal of better understanding the emotions they are feeling. However, personalities initially dictate the levels of emotional intelligence individuals have to a certain extent; an individual who possesses traits of a ‘sensing and judging’ person will likely resist change as they will see radical change as a violation of the psychological contract.
However, instilling employees with high levels of emotional intelligence requires an overall organisation transformation. Senge (1992) emphasises that organisations and employees need to develop personal mastery and take account for their own actions as well as learning how decisions based on emotions are dangerous for one to make. Organisations should not buy into the fact that emotions cannot be tampered with, they should invest heavily in developing staff and training them to become more emotionally intelligent, so they can adopt the practice of monitoring their own actions which will help facilitate transition.
Group level Dynamics
Individual factors of resistance to change are a big issue for change practitioners, but it is unrealistic for such practitioners to work with every individual who comprises an organisation, especially when working within big corporations. Almost every individual in an organisation belongs to at least five or six groups inside that organisation. Groups have a direct impact on change processes; moreover, change agents must devise strategies where they do not cause anger and resentment to groups as they have more of an influence than individual resistors of change. However, focusing on group dynamics is a realistic way of tackling organisational change and development, as consistent with Lewin’s (1966) idea of group decision making being more effective and more likely to be pursued. McKinley et al. (2010) have distinguished between groups and teams, stating that groups are two or more people working to a common goal, where there is no psychological contract between them. Teams are seen by Katzenbach and Smith (1991) as differentiated to other working groups by performance results, since only teams produce individual results and “collective work-products” , the results from several members working together. Teams and groups can come in many different forms, such as formal and informal groups, both of which are vital to life within organisations. Informal groups are dangerous to management as they do not possess any form of institutional rules and are governed by ideas which are not always in the best interest of employers.
Causes Of group Resistance (Group Norms)
Group norms can be a big stumbling block for organisations and can be a root cause for resistance to change. Coghlan (1994) has described group norms as unwritten rules which constitute the atmosphere within groups and teams. Group norms in a formal setting can be governed and overlooked by organisations. However, since informal groups are self-organised by the thoughts and identities of individuals it is not so easy for organisations to influence them. The dangerous aspect of group norms is that they can easily become viral as personalities differ in groups in which a very outspoken and influential figurehead can influence the thinking of the quiet individuals getting them to comply with their frame of mind, this is in line with Watson’s (1969) argument where he posits that team resistance is based on conformity to group norms.
In an organisational context group norms can cause difficulties for change processes due to the influence they have. During change processes, where there is a great deal of uncertainty, there is a strong possibility that this will result in people joining informal groups since these may wield hidden but significant power within organisations and be able to influence decisions on organisational process due to such power. This will also have a positive impact on groups as they will broaden their capacity.
Group dynamics can be an extremely difficult question for organisations; however, winning groups over can benefit organisations in terms of morale, productivity and cultural cohesion that results from positive networking: “It has been argued that the modern organisation is no longer a collection of individuals, but rather a network of interconnected teams (Kozlowski and Bell, 2003). This way of imagining organisations exemplifies the importance of groups and collective thinking in this context, and how such thinking can shape the outcomes of organisational change. It is therefore vital that organisations include groups in change processes or else they will run the risk of engendering demotivated and disempowered work forces, as well as the possibility of employees joining informal groups resisting top-down transitions and changes in order to exercise power and feel valued as individuals.
Solutions presented by Ford and Ford (2009), where change processes are seen as an opportunity to change the status quo by changing norms within groups, have been seen to produce positive results in Coch and Ford’s 1948 case study among others. These solutions also coincide with the thoughts of Kotter and Schlesinger (1979), where methods of dealing with resistance which emphasise the importance of participation and communication are put forward as the best resolution to issues of organisational change. Change agents are seen as needing to encourage cross-organisational participation and dialogue, and to see resistance as a resource and a necessary feedback loop in order for change to be implemented successfully through the medium of groups.
This essay has discussed internal factors of organisational change and development from the human element perspective. Resistance to change is something which has traditionally been assumed as a negative development by managers. This perception was shown to be a cause for change attempts being resisted. How resistance to change is helpful to organisations where poor employee participation has been a prevalent feature during past transitions has also been discussed. The points made by Ford and Ford (2009) are useful as they see resistance as a resource which encourages organisations to start afresh and change the employee base instead of gratifying the self-interest instinct. Emotions have been shown to play a key role in change processes, where negative emotions have a big influence not only on individuals but also on groups, as they can be highly contagious and effect organisational cultures. It is clear that managers need to carefully manage emotions during transitions, since a prolonged coping cycle can prove to be disastrous for organisations. Dealing with emotions can be complicated; however, having a high level of emotional intelligence among staff will make the probability of resistance lower without letting emotional subjectivity surpass objectivity at work. As mentioned above, almost every individual belongs to several groups within their organisation. The most dangerous types of groups are informal ones due to their hidden power agendas and circumventing influence they can have on individuals, which can be a direct form of resistance to change. This essay has argued that the most feasible solution to coping with emotions during organisational change periods is winning over groups through interpersonal ways where groups are the sole focus of change, and groups can participate and contribute towards change. This may take up time and resources, but in the long run the organisations will benefit hugely.
References and Bibliography
Ackroyd, S., Thompson, P., 1999. Organizational Misbehaviour. SAGE: London pp. 46-49
Beer, M. and Nohria, N., 2000. Cracking the code of change. Harvard Business Review. pp. 133-41.
Boreman, D.R., Ilgen and I.B., Weiner (eds), Handbook of industrial and Organisational Psychology. Vol. 12. New York: Wiley, pp. 333- 76.
Brown, Humphreys, 2006. Organizational Identity and Place: A Discursive Exploration of Hegemony and Resistance. Management Studies. Vol. 43 No. 2 pp. 231-257
Buchanan, D., and Huczynski, A., 2010. Organisational Behaviour,
Cialdini, R., 2001. Harnessing the Science of Persuasion. Harvard Business Review.
Coch, L. and French, J., 1948. Overcoming Resistance to Change. Human Relations. (1: 512-32).
Coghlan, D., 1994. Managing Organizational Change through Teams and Groups. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 15 Iss: 2 pp. 18 – 23
Elrod D., and Tippet D., 1988. The “death valley” of Change. Organisational Change Management. Vol. 15 No. 3 pp 273-291
Ford, J., and Ford, L., 2009. Decoding Resistance to Change. Harvard Business Review.
Ford, G, Ford, L., & D’Amelio, A., 2008. Resistance to Change: The Rest of the Story. Academy of Management Review. Vol. 33, No. 2, 362–377. (2), P. 1-16.
Grant, R. M., 1996. Prospering in Dynamically-Competitive Environments: Organizational Capability as Knowledge Integration. Organisation Science. Vol. 7 No. 4 pp. 375-387
Hofstede, G., 1989. Organising for Cultural Diversity. European Management Journal. Vol. 4 No. 7 pp 390-397
Hughes, M., 2010. Managing Change: A Critical Perspective. 2nd ed. London: Chartered Institue of Personnel & Development
Jordan, P. J., 2003. Dealing with Organisational Change: Can Emotional Intelligence Enhance Organisational LearningInternational Journal of Organisational Behaviour. Vol. 8:1, p. 456-471
Katzenback, J, R., Smith, D, K., 1991. The Discipline of Teams. Harvard Business Review [online] Available at:
Kotter, J. S. L., 1979. Choosing strategy to Change. Harvard Business Review
Kozlowski, S.W.J. and Bell, B., 2003. Work Groups and Teams in Organisations. In: W.C
Kubler-Ross, E., 1969. On Death and Dying. Touchstone: New York. pp. 33-66
Lau, C.M. and Woodman, R.W., 1995. Understanding organizational change – a schematic perspective. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 38, pp. 537-54
Lewin, K., 1966. Group Decisions and Social Change. In: Maccoby, E, Newcomb, E, and Hartley, E., Readings in Social Psychology, London
Marks, M.L and Mirvis, P.H., 1992. Rebuilding after the merger: dealing with survivor sickness. Organisation Dynamics, Vol. 21, No 2, P. 18-35
McKinlay, A., Carter, C., Pezet, E., Clegg, S., 2010. Using Foucault to make strategy. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal. Vol. 23 No. 8, pp.1012 – 1031
Mirvis, P. H., and Marks, M. L., 1992. The Human Side of Merger Planning: Assessing and
Analyzing “Fit”. Human Resource Planning, 15 (3), 69- 92.
Myers, P., Hulks, S., and Wiggins, L. 2012. Organizational Change: Perspectives on Theory and Practice. 1st ed. Oxford: OUP
Senge, P. M., 1992. Mental Models. Strategy and Leadership. Vol. 20 No. 2 pp. 4-44
Schein, E.H. (1978). Career Dynamics: Matching Individual and Organisational Needs. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Tushamn, M., and O’Reilly, C., 2006. Ambidextrous Organisations: Managing Evolutionary and Revolutionary Change. In: Mayle, D., 2006. Managing Innovation and Change. SAGE Publications: London pp. 170-184
Vakola, M., Tsaousis, I., Nikolaou, I., 2004. The role of emotional intelligence and personality variables on attitudes toward organisational change. Managerial Psychology Vol. 19 No. 2 pp. 88 – 110
Vroom, V. H., 1964. Work and motivation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Waddell, D., and Sohal, S. A., 1998. Resistance: a constructive tool for change management. Management Decision, Vol. 36 Iss: 8 pp. 543 – 548
Watson, G., 1969. Resistance to Change. In: Bennis, W., Benne, K., and Chin, R., (Eds), The Planning of Change. (2nd ed). Holt, Rinehart & Winston: New York pp. 27-46
Zaltman, G. and Duncan R., 1977. Strategies for Planned Change. J. Wesley & Sons: New York.