Understanding and working with resistance to change

As human beings we tend to show a resistance to change. Not all change is the same of course, or perhaps I should more correctly say our perceptions of change vary according to how we see the world. A key aspect of that is how engaged and part of the change process we feel. The transitions change management model (Kurt Lewins) is a useful way of gaining understanding on your own reactions and resistance to change.

Did we choose it or was it forced upon us?

For those who make decisions



Intentional change

For those required to implement the decisions


Imposed change

Is a conscious decision

Is a decision without choice

Is anticipated

Is unexpected

Is gradual

Is sudden

Is incremental

Is dramatic

Is paced

Is rapid

Solves problems

Creates problems

Provides new opportunities

Disrupts routines

Taken from “The Challenge of Change in Organisations” by Barger & Kirby

So our resistance to change is affected greatly by how much choice we feel we have had.

need a route map for organisationl change?

The Process of Change - Personal

When people are coming to grips with change they find there are three main stages to deal with.

1. Endings

People frequently feel they are leaving things behind and stepping into uncharted waters. A bit like climbing into a boat when you have one foot on land and one in the rocking boat. There is a fear of falling, slipping into the water, and grief on the voyage from leaving behind your supports and all that is familiar. Not surprisingly often people show a resistance to change, well wouldn't you?

Often people feel they are being pushed into the boat and have no control over events. Then you feel victimised, betrayed, and angry. All these resistance to change emotions use up energy and you feel very tired.

2. Transitions

At this stage it is common to feel that although you are on the Journey, and trying to deal with the situation, you are worried about the future, feel unsure, and want lots of answers to the many questions you have. Rather like being on the boat in mid-stream. You may be carried along at a rate faster than you feel comfortable with, and may not really understand where you are going. There will be lots of rocks in your path to manoeuvre around. Lots of big waves to deal with. It is a stage most people go through before they feel confident about handling their new organisational culture and their new role. A stage where you often feel that you are only just surviving.

3. New Beginnings

When working through this stage, you can feel more confident, and try to manage the situation positively. You become accepting of the change and enthusiastic, look forward, and feel that they are in charge. You take control, set goals for yourself, take on board the organisation’s new goals, and chart a course for yourself. You navigate your way through change in a positive manner, and feel able to try out new things. This stage can be like having reached the shore at long last, and feeling really positive and excited. However it frequently means climbing up hill, and finding it hard to see the wood for the trees. There will be some existing paths for you to follow, but sometimes you will need to forge your own. But at least you know you have been navigating on course.At this stage you have left resistance to the change ehind you and are getting on with trying to make sense of it all.

Harvard article on overcoming resistance to change

Once you decide to change your thoughts, in order to change your life, you have triggered an automatic brain response that will change the way you now perceive certain things. Whatever change you decide you're going to make, if you focus on just one of your dreams, your brain will now begin making new connections, and you'll begin seeing things that are related to your dream that you never saw before. Now you need to begin changing that dream into a personal goal, as well as a detailed plan that will achieve your goal.

Where do you think you are at the moment in this process of change? Dealing with the change, hoping it will go away or showing some resistance to the change?:


Still firmly on shore?


In mid-stream?


Manoeuvring around barriers?


On the rocks?


Stepping ashore in new country?


Made it but finding the going pretty tiring?

Stepping into the boat?


Getting knocked about by the waves?


Lost your way?


Trying out new ways?

More on dealing with change here

Reactions to the Stages of Change


People react with the following behaviours:

They feel:

·           Tears

·           Lethargic reactions

·           Absenteeism

·           Lateness

·           Time wasting

·           Physical illness

·           Making mistakes with their work

·           Either talking a lot with work mates or withdrawing

·           Loss of temper

·           Criticism

·           Cynicism

·           Lack of concentration

·           Resistance to change

·           Denial of change

·      Tired

·      Angry

·      Lost

·      Alone

·      Confused

·      Threatened

·      As though it is not worth putting effort in

·      Irritable

·      Depressed

·      Frightened

·      Negative

·      Incompetent

·      Loss of confidence

·      Loss of identity


Many of these are classic emotional resistance to change behaviours.


People react with the following behaviours:

They feel:

·           More interest

·           A little more energy

·           Ask lots of questions

·           Confusion

·           They try new things out but may give up quickly

·           Still not back to normal concentration

·           Say things may be okay

·           Confused

·           Anxious

·           Want to do well

·           Tired and irritable

·           As though they are only just surviving

·           Not very competent



It is not uncommon to bounce back and forth a bit here and get tied up again in resistance to change behaviours.


People react with the following behaviours:

They feel:

·           Keenness

·           Trying things out

·           Making positive statements

·           Helping others - team work

·           Offering advice

·           Enthusiasm

·           Goal setting

·           Make future oriented statements

·           More at ease with the situation

·           Accepting of the change

·           Excited and positive

·           Future and goal oriented

·           Happier

·           In control

·           Confident and competent

The Roles People Adopt

The roles people adopt frequently relate to the stage they are in during their process of adjusting to change.


Being A Victim


When people adopt the role of victim they are usually dealing with endings.


They feel

They respond with

·           threatened

·           out of control

·           vulnerable

·           panic

·           withdrawing or being aggressive

·           complaining and being cynical

·           adopting a wait and see mentality

·           pessimism


Being a Survivor


When people adopt the role of a survivor they are usually in the transition stage.


They feel

They respond with

·           at the mercy of circumstances

·           the need to protect themselves no matter what

·           out of control

·           Hanging in for dear life

·           Clinging to what comes up

·           Trying to predict where their best changes lie thinking

·           of the “now” rather than the future



Resistance to change is commonly experienced in both the Victim and Survivor stages.

How can I Use this change management model?

By Becoming a Navigator

To fully come to terms with the changes and associated stressors in life, people need to work through the endings, transitions and beginnings stages of the process.  The trouble is, we often don’t relate the theory to ourselves and can't always see the emotional content in our resistance to change.


It is normal to feel a victim of change during the first stage.  The second stage is frequently one of feeling that one is just surviving.  But accepting that the change is inevitable, and taking control, particularly of one’s own change resistance reactions, is dealing with change adopting the role of the navigator; setting goals and charting a course.  Getting involved in the change also helps to accept it.  Gradually people develop a feeling of success and achievement that they have adjusted to the new environment.  They are successful navigators.


Navigator’s will:


They feel

They respond with

·           Comfortable and confident in themselves

·           In charge of their own life

·           Positive about the future

·           Able to cope

·                A pro-active approach

·                Gathering useful information

·                Pursuing opportunities

Show behaviour of


·           Remaining calm

·           Managing stress

·           Positive self-talk

·           Planning and taking action



As you can see, navigators are the ones who will contribute to customer service, productivity, and increasing morale.  By being aware of the different reactions, feelings and behaviours that your colleagues will experience, you will be able to assist them to move through the first two stages as best you can, and encourage navigator behaviour.


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