Who resists change the most?

Jeff Cole


Do you intend to retire some day from the exact job you are in at this moment?  If not, then change is definitely on your horizon. Change is something we all must live with as part of our daily work lives.  It’s coming – it’s just a matter of when and where and if it’s good or disruptive change.   A disruptive change that catches you by surprise can lead to resistance.

It’s no wonder then that people in organizations all over the world are resisting changes in the workplace.  It’s a natural phenomenon to be expected in any large or complex process change. 


No amount of resistance will make change go away...

For those managing change, a key activity behind the scenes is to proactively look at the workplace and try to determine where the "hot spots" of resistance will be – by function or role or department or individual.  What does your experience tell you?  Who is the most resistant group in general?

Here’s a quiz:  Suppose you had a large organization with multiple levels of management:

  • Executive leaders
  • Senior managers
  • Middle managers
  • Line supervisors
  • Individual workers

Which of these groups do you suppose is the most resistant to change?   When I first saw this I thought it would be individual workers.  Others have guessed at executive or senior management.  The answer may surprise you.  According to a survey by Prosci, hands-down the most resistant group on this list is Middle Managers!    If you think about it for a bit, it starts to make sense.  

When the economy tanked, many workers left, but the work didn’t. People all have their plates full. Senior management is pulling middle management in one direction.  Their workers are pulling them in another direction.  Add a time-consuming, complex, or disruptive change into this mix and it’s a perfect recipe for resistance.  The very nature of middle management leads to this effect. 

Once we have identified a potential pocket for resistance, we can follow the advice of Stephen Covey to "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."  In other words, figure out why the group is resisting. Is it due to ability?  They don’t have the knowledge, access, tools, etc. to engage in the change?   Is resistance due to willingness?  That they understand what to do but they choose not to do it? 

While we may never eliminate resistance to a large change, we can manage it if we know about it.  Thus, there are several tactics you can employ to deal with this:

  • People tend to do what their immediate boss asks them to do.  Focus on cascading open and honest communications throughout the chain of sponsorship – from senior management through to individual workers.  Ensure there is a feedback loop and that people can voice their concerns.
  • Understand people’s different communication preferences and the need to possibly generate your message multiple times and in multiple ways to get it across.  There are visual, verbal, and tactile preferences.  People who prefer a call to an email, a 1:1 meeting versus an all-hands session, etc.
  • In your communications, be sure to honestly highlight the benefits and the burning platform of the change.
  • "Weave" the change into the organization rather than loosely stapling it on.  If you picked up your organization and shook it really briskly, would this change just fly off?  Or is it firmly embedded into all the appropriate systems like IT, performance objectives, reward and recognition systems, reporting systems, etc.?
  • Highlight and reward early adopters of the change. Establish consequences for not adopting while making adopting the change the easiest path to take.

Keep in mind that you may never really eliminate resistance.  However, taking a proactive look at who may resist and why, and ensuring you have a solid plan for integrating and communicating the change can go a long way toward making your next rollout even smoother!