Taming the beast: Resistance and anxiety in change processes

Beware the monster: “We will propose change. You will resist it. We will resist in turn, not by looking at the validity of your ideas, but by trying to overcome your resistance with carrots if possible and sticks if necessary.”
By John Butler
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/23/2001

If you believe the flood of information on change management, two things are inevitable: change, and resistance to change. Change management has become an issue for HR practitioners because the profession is central in finding and making the pieces that comprise organizations, and they are often left to pick up the pieces when a change process falls apart.

The last decade witnessed burgeoning interest in change management, partly because of the speed of change and partly because one kind of change, computer technology, has exploded. Explosions get attention.

Change authors (myself included) ride on a wave of panic, a sense that change is a Darwinian imperative, producing new species at a frightening rate — even though most of the species die.

No one has a magic bullet to ensure change takes place, and in fact, many change processes end in failure.

Before I modestly suggest a rebalancing of how we see change, resistance to change, and change-anxiety, it is worth looking at the grandparents of current change management.

Here there are two family trees. The first is the strategic planning family tree, throwing up its tendrils in the 1930s and ’40s. Then there is the change management tree, sharing genetic material with strategic planning but beginning its growth in the late 1940s and 1950s.

No surprise the two families are related. Strategic planning is about deciding what changes to make. Change management is about making the changes. And the latter family’s latest offspring have explored what to do when you can’t seem to make the changes.

As change management’s progeny grew into adulthood, many features were common in family members, the equivalents of receding chins and male pattern baldness in real families.

The first of these is the belief that resistance to change is non-logical. This approach concerns itself with workforce anxiety, fear of change, distrust, and other viscera. This approach is not wrong unless it rules out the possibility of logical resistance to change.

The second is the belief that leaders are to blame if change does not stick. It has two versions: the commitment version (top dogs haven’t bought into the change), and the competence version (top dogs don’t know how to manage change).

Solutions to the commitment version often look like revival tents for managers, aided by charismatic itinerant change-preachers and the recruitment of lay preachers (“champions” in change management parlance).

Solutions to the competence version usually involve Making Lists (Homo sapiens the Toolmaker, evolved into the Listmaker). Twenty-three obstacles to change, six ways to get troops on side, eight errors in shaping change…the list of lists goes on and on.

Thirdly, a cluster of techniques emerges as preferred ways to manage change in the face of anticipated or actual resistance:

•Persuasion: making the workforce aware of the proposed changes and the reasons behind them, and persuading them to buy into the change;

•Engagement: making the workforce part of the change process by eliciting their ideas about what changes should be made and how they should be made;

•Support: acknowledging workforce anxiety, and using passive techniques (patience for instance) and active ones (upgraded training or access to stress alleviation resources for instance) to help employees cope with change;

•Manipulation: though seldom called by this name, manipulation involves controlling workplace reward systems and information systems to encourage behaviours that support the change;

•Negotiation: making deals with the workforce that allow change to proceed; and

•Override: an approach of last resort, it assumes some employees will never adapt to change and should be encouraged to leave the organization if they cannot adapt.

Common to these techniques are communication and perseverance — the “talking long haul” as one change manager put it.

This toolbox of six techniques is comprehensive and can be effective.

I hedge my bets only because the effectiveness of the tools will depend on how leaders envisage change, resistance and anxiety.

Defining change

We often see change as if it was an “it” — a discrete entity, an organism lurching across the landscape.

When we see it as a creature we attach monolithic characteristics to it — change is good, is bad, is promising, is threatening, is inevitable. We are better off seeing change as a vast multi-species herd of little critters, not some immense megasaur stalking the plains. If we discard the megasaurian view, we can no longer say “change is inevitable,” but we can say more useable things from a manager’s perspective — some changes are inevitable, some are possible, some are unlikely, some are undesirable, some are impossible.

This herd or hulk dichotomy has to do with more than definitions of change. For decades we have valued the person of vision more than the person of detail.

Vast eloquent simplifications stand leaders in better stead than dumb detail in today’s world — but in change management, dumb detail may be crucial. As the cliche goes, “the devil is in the detail.”

What does the multi-critter approach let us do? It lets us ask questions and make decisions and mini-strategies about each component of change, about each separate critter. It lets us decide that some elements in the organization’s business should be preserved, some should change radically, some should change just a little. It allows changes to take place at different speeds, in different and even paradoxical ways.

Another enemy of the particularistic approach is a kind of laziness mixed with lust for drama. As a culprit, let me explain. I am one of those who hates to tinker with my car, one of millions who at some point would sooner “fix” my car by junking it and buying a new one. Similarly, leaders are sometimes so exasperated by the tedium of tuning the engine, replacing parts, upgrading others, that they opt for a dramatic change, whether necessary or not. That’s how new, unaffordable, ill-suited hummers appear in suburban driveways.

Similarly, views of “resistance” bears examination. The word implies a reactive stance: the resister is resisting something that existed before the resistance.

Only a stone’s throw from this semantic nuance is the idea that workforces are reactive, while change agents are proactive. This essentially rules out workforces as proactive change agents. In reality, the skeletons and major muscle groups of most change processes are usually developed before active workforce participation. The customary mantra runs, “We think things should change in the following direction, and we’d like your input before we carry it further.” Many change agents work hard at workforce participation as early and fully as possible, but still within the context of initiation by the change agent, not the workforce.

The reactivity of resistance has been fostered by attitudes that go back to the grandfather of change management, Kurt Lewin, whose change model in the late 1940s was based on a cycle of unfreezing the status quo, changing things, then “refreezing” so changes solidify. This model is in turn based on a theory of equilibrium that suggests systems strive to reach a state of stability, and left to their own devices they will settle back into the old and the comfortable.

Uncritical application of the model leads to a stereotype: the arch-conservative workforce, resistant to change, yearning for the old ways.

Ironically, some leaders bemoan employee resistance to change while at the same time expressing exasperation at the fickleness of consumers always pursuing the new. It’s as if workers and consumers were different species, but they are not. They are the same species with different dimensions — a nesting side drawn to stability, a curious side drawn to change.

Workforces are not innately against change. Many characteristics of organizations are not the result of centrally planned change, but from small incremental changes (that herd of little critters again) created undramatically by employees, often unbeknownst to management. When we concentrate only on the equilibrium-seeking characteristics of employees and not on their adaptive talents, we sell them short. This sets up a behaviour chain:

“We will propose change. You will resist it. We will resist in turn, not by looking at the validity of your ideas, but by trying to overcome your resistance with carrots if possible and sticks if necessary.”


Let’s flip the concept of resistance over and examine its underbelly. Resistance is one dimension of the desire to have influence over oneself and one’s environment. Backed in a corner, any organism shows resistance as its influence-of-choice. Given opportunities, most organisms show the adaptive creative face.

How to provide the opportunities? Change managers point to the need to engage employees early in change processes. Where the process often breaks down is in defining terms of engagement.

For one thing, the engagement is often seen (quite accurately) not as engagement but co-opting. The change agent says, “We will engage you until you have agreed to the change we think is best. We want your input on incidentals, but not the essential features of change.”

Change anxiety

For another thing, the process founders on the rocks of change-anxiety. The change agent, anticipating anxiety and assuming it is bad, says (as sub-text) “You will be anxious during our time together. Therefore I acknowledge you will not behave rationally. I will be understanding and kind.”

Dictionary definitions of anxiety include “a state of being uneasy, apprehensive, or worried about what may happen” or a “feeling of being powerless and unable to cope with threatening events…[characterized] by physical tension.” Powerlessness best characterizes anxiety in times of change.

So let’s reframe the idea of “anxiety” by saying it is a form of energy. Allowed a legitimate outlet, it is fuel. Dammed, it is pathological. Treating it as an illness stemming from change itself leads to the mistaken approach of palliating the anxiety through cooing memos and protestations of the goodwill of the change agent, and involvement of employees on committees and task forces so they can learn to accept the supposedly inevitable.

Some change analysts even compare reaction to change to the emotional stages of coping with death first enunciated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Not surprising since some change agents think their version of change is, like death, inevitable — the “sufferer” should be brought as comfortably as possible to the acceptance stage. Nor is it surprising that leaders want to “treat” the anxiety. Nobody likes to come to work in a place where workers paint new hex signs on the wall each morning.

Anxiety precedes good things too (ask any bride or groom half an hour before the ceremony). The trick is seeing it as good fuel and using it.

The best way to address change as a herd of little critters, to reframe resistance to change, and to make anxiety a fuel, is to use the most underused tool in the change management toolbox — negotiation. Start early in the process to negotiate with employees before dysfunctions creep into the change process.

These negotiations can be governed by several assumptions on the part of leaders:

•Like you, your employees want change that helps.

•Like you, they are aware of dangers to the organization, and can embrace change to protect or grow the organization.

•Like you, they negotiate based on logic and on emotion, and both are legitimate.

•Like you, they have fixed positions as well as flexible interests, and it is best to negotiate using the backdrop of interests, not fixed positions.

•Neither you nor your employees will get everything they want from the change process, but better to get to an inhabitable core than an imaginary continent.

I say begin early in the process because if you don’t, standard assumptions about change, resistance and anxiety will set in, making it hard to negotiate thereafter. Techniques for starting early are not rocket science: tools like SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) help at this stage, to develop understandings of change and why it is needed.

This is where the HR department comes in. HR specialists are superb negotiators in many organizations, whether negotiating employment contracts, benefit packages or an end to an in-house dispute — so perhaps they are indispensable change agents as well.

John Butler is president of the Agora Group, an HR and health-care management consulting firm. He can be contacted at (905) 294-9762 or agora.group@home.com.

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