45. Resistance to Change Typology

1 March 2023
How should I interpret people’s reluctance to change?

Key Definitions

Panta rhei – everything flows – was the observation made by Heraclitus about 2500 years ago. People change, organizations change, conditions change; only change itself is permanent. It can vary, from slow and incremental to fast and transformational, but occurs everywhere.

Yet not only change is ceaseless, so is people’s inclination to resist change – to be reluctant to embrace the transition from A to B. When people value what they have, they show resistance to letting go; when they question what they are getting in return, they exhibit resistance to taking hold. Not everyone resists all the time, but it is a common human response to change.

Conceptual Model

The Resistance to Change Typology outlines the six generic categories of reasons why people experience reluctance to change from a current to a future state (also see Meyer’s Model #1, the Mind the Gap model, for the challenges of change). The typology distinguishes between three different drivers of resistance, namely interests (political resistance), views (cognitive resistance) and feelings (emotional resistance). It also makes a distinction between resistance that is due to the need to let go of the current state and to take hold of the future state.

Key Elements

The six reasons that people resist change are the following:

  1. Political Resistance. When people anticipate that a potential change might not serve their interests, there can be a strong motivation to push back. This resistance is called political as it is driven by people’s perception of winning or losing part of their stake in the “game”.
    1. Loss-Aversion. All changes involve the inherent threat of losing something of value, such as money, access to resources, influence, autonomy and standing. It makes “game theoretical” sense to avoid such losses of power and to safeguard your interests.
    2. Risk-Aversion. Most changes also offer potential gains, as an individual, department and/or organization. But it is seldom guaranteed that the future state will bring the projected benefits, making people hesitant to engage in such a risky endeavor.
  2. Cognitive Resistance. When a potential change is at odds with people’s understanding of what is necessary, they are also likely to be reluctant to come on board. This resistance is called cognitive, as it is driven by people’s mental beliefs, assumptions, and reasoning.
    1. Discomfort. If a change challenges people’s established worldview, pushing them out of their comfort zone and requiring them to let go of cherished certainties, this can cause mental anguish. People generally prefer to avoid such disorientation and distress.
    2. Confusion. At the same time, change usually presents a new reality that is difficult to comprehend and internalize. New insights and new rules just don’t seem to make sense, leaving people confused. Rejecting such foreign ideas helps to reestablish mental order.
  3. Emotional Resistance. When a potential change negatively impacts people’s deeper feelings, they are also more likely to push it away. This resistance is called emotional, as it is driven by people’s, often subconscious, inner sentiments and disposition.
    1. Grief. If a change makes people feel they need to let go of something for which they have great affection and to which they have become psychologically attached, this can result in sorrow and the need to mourn. People prefer to evade the pain of grief.
    2. Fear. At the same time, change usually triggers angst for what might happen en route to the future state and when the destination is reached. There can be fear of loss, discomfort, confusion, grief, and even fear of fear – all emotions preferably averted.

Key Insights

  • Resistance to change is about reluctance to let go and take hold. In a change, you know what you have, but not what you’re going to get. Both aspects cause resistance. If you know what you have, letting it go can be disadvantageous, disorienting and even painful, while grabbing onto the new can be risky, confusing, and even outright scary.
  • Resistance to change can be political, cognitive, and emotional. There are three core drivers of change resistance. Political resistance happens when people fret about what change will mean for their interests; cognitive resistance when people struggle with ideas contrary to their views; and emotional resistance when change triggers negative feelings.
  • There are six different types of resistance to change. Political resistance comes in two flavors – loss-aversion when current interests need to be let go, and risk-aversion when potential future interests are difficult to ensure. Cognitive resistance likewise – discomfort at letting go of existing certainties and confusion in trying to grasp new views. Ditto emotional resistance – grief for letting go of present attachments and fear for what the future might bring.
  • The six types of resistance to change often reinforce each other. All six types of resistance can come into play at different moments, but they are often intertwined in practice, as political and cognitive resistance quickly spark emotional resistance.
  • Resistance to change can trigger resistance to resistance. For change managers it is crucial to understand what type of resistance they are facing. At the same time, they need to realize they might become resistant to resistance for many of the same reasons.
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