Culture Chat

And other musings on humanizing the workplace
The REAL Reason Why People Resist Change

The REAL Reason Why People Resist Change

March 20, 2017
Jamie Notter

I am constantly confronted with the generalization that people resist change. I hear it all the time, delivered to me as an unquestioned fact. We might develop strategies to deal with resistance, but we take for granted that resistance will be there.

And I get it. Inertia is a thing. We all spend most of the time in our comfort zone, so breaking us out of that will require some effort. But that kind of resistance, frankly, is so easy to overcome, I don’t think we should call it resistance. Cast in that light, getting up from my desk to get some more coffee is an act of “overcoming” the resistance to change from my position at my desk. Please. That’s not our problem.

Our problem is when people resist big change that is important to the organization. We are moving in a new strategic direction, or we are deploying a significant technology platform that changes the way we do our work, yet many of our people are falling back into their old patterns, thus the potential value in the change is not fully captured. When there is significant value out there, and we can’t capture it—that’s a problem.

So why are they resisting? Is it because they are not mature enough professionally to see the importance of the change? Is it because we didn’t communicate the value of the change adequately? Is it because their human and humans resist change? None of the above, really.

People don’t resist change; they resist change that they think is stupid. Or they resist change that appears to go against their interests unnecessarily. And here’s the biggest one: people resist change that does not make sense to them.

It’s not that they don’t understand your overall reason for the change (so please, don’t try to explain that to them again, they’ll only resist harder). It’s that your change disregards their deeper experience of the organization’s culture. There’s a disconnect. You’re telling me we all need to shift and start communicating via this new intranet, in order to improve collaboration, but at the same time, I literally can’t get access to floors where people in other departments sit because my key won’t open those doors. I also have to submit a written request to a department head if I want to work together with my colleague on a project.

You’re telling me that we need to be more collaborative, but the culture tells me a different story. And all those great reasons for doing collaboration (that you’ve been messaging me about as part of your change management efforts) never resolve the disconnect. It’s not that the current culture tells me NOT to collaborate, but it tells me in subtle ways that collaboration is something to be controlled and limited in order to protect what each of us is doing within our departments. So this new system—where everyone can suddenly talk to everyone about everything—will not make sense.

This is one reason why a lot of our Workplace Genome clients are currently in the middle of big transitions. Some recently acquired a new company, some are in a period of significant growth, and some just got a new CEO. All of those are situations where the change is coming fast and furious, yet if you cannot connect that change to what people already experience as your culture, the change won’t make sense (and you’ll get resistance). The Workplace Genome helps them see their culture more clearly, and that allows them to connect the dots between people’s current experience and the new direction.

Dots connected = less resistance.

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