Why We Tend To Resist Change

We live in a time of globalization and constant technology innovation. The growth in technology rapidly increases our access to information and knowledge. These constant changes result in an ever evolving business environment and a demand for organizations to change and adapt. Although modern organizational changes are more often driven by external forces than internal, change is a wonderful individual and organizational opportunity to innovate, create, and become more efficient and effective. Research shows that organizations that adapt to external changes most quickly will create a competitive advantage for themselves while the companies that are slow to change will be left behind.

While change is an opportunity, anyone who led or participated in an organizational change can attest that the process is not easy. Changing the procedures, technology, and organizational systems is the less challenging part of change management. The most challenging component is changing how people in an organization act and think. Change is uncomfortable and often provokes resistance. It is our natural tendency to cling to the known rather than embracing the unknown. So, what’s behind our resistance? Why may we feel so uncomfortable and defensive even though rationally we may grasp the benefits of change?

Based on our personalities and previous experiences, we all may embrace and deal with change differently. We do though have some common tendencies behind resistance to change.

Status quo bias. People have conscious or subconscious tendencies to stick with in the status quo. When faced with a dilemma, we tend to do nothing. And not just individuals and organizations; biological and ecological systems also fight to remain in the status quo. This phenomenon is called homeostasis.

Fear of the unknown. Behind the fear of the unknown lurks the fear of not meeting basic needs. If we recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we will remember that our physiological and then safety needs are at the bottom on the pyramid. So, it is natural that during an organizational change, we become fearful of our jobs and the pay level. Will I have a job and be able to bring food to the table? Will I have enough income to pay rent and provide safety to myself and the family? So the fear of the unknown drives us to resist change.

Sometimes, the current, “the known” situation may cause us a distress and dissatisfaction, but we still may feel more comfortable with what we know. Even when we rationally understand the potential change is positive and promising, we may resist it, because on emotional level “the unknown” is anxiety provoking. The old proverb sums it up: “The devil that I know is better than the devil that I do not know”.

Loss of control. This is another key reason why we resist change. Familiar routines help employees develop a sense of control over their work environment. Being asked to change the way they operate may make employees feel powerless and confused. Even changes in daily procedures or desk location may evoke a feeling of loss of control for employees. Overall, people are more likely to understand and embrace changes when they feel they have some form of control.

Concerns about competence. Sometimes, change in organizations necessitates changes in skills. Some people may perceive that they do not have skills to make a transition, and doubt of their capacities to learn those new skills. Therefore, they resist change as a survival strategy, either openly or passively. Some employees may have intellectual and physical capacities to learn new skills, but may express an unwillingness to do so.

Concerns of greater workload. We may also have a legitimate concern of more work to do that come with new tasks or new positions. Especially, when change includes restructuring, mergers, or acquisitions, employees may be anxious of “doing more with less”, that is performing more than one job with the same or even lesser resources.

Resistance is an emotional process. Behind the resistance are the feelings. In our next blog we will discuss the strategies to embracing change, however it is important to remember that as leaders we cannot tell people stop feeling what they feel. On the contrary, fighting resistance directly will just bring in more resistance. As employees and participants in the change process, we also cannot talk ourselves out of our feelings overnight. Rather we can accept the feelings that we experience and then we can work with ourselves and with others to embrace change.