Resistance to Change in Organizations

Vic Napier

May 2009


There are as many ideas about the reasons for resistance to change as there are people who want to advance them. Michael Hammer wrote a number of books about organizational change in the 1980’s and 90’s and views change from the perspective of organizational structure. Hammer sees resistance to change as an inherent property of organizations:  

“Indeed, we can go further and say that most organizations were designed not to change. They were organized and managed with the implicit belief that basic change does not happen, that the future of the organization is largely the same as its past, that the goal of management is merely to maintain and perfect the model devised by the company's long-departed founder” (Hammer 1996, p. 209). 

Hitt, Black and Porter (2005) trace resistance to change as in interaction between people and organizational structure. They identify six factors that contribute to people either not perceiving a need for change or actively resisting seeing such needs – Inertia, Mistrust, Lack of Information Lack of Clarity, Lack of Capabilities and Lack of Incentive:  

  • Inertia. Simply being comfortable with their present ways of doing things. Without significant incentive to change or high-perceived risks for not changing, people simply find it easier to do things the way they always have rather than to operate or behave differently.


  • Mistrust. Mistrust of those communicating the need for change by those affected by the proposed change can be a significant barrier to unfreezing.


  • Lack of Information Lack of adequate information about both the need for the change and what its effects are likely to be can be a third powerful force of resistance.


  • Lack of Clarity. If the new right thing or the target of change is not clear to people, they are likely to resist movement toward it. Why? Because to them it is like shooting in the dark.


  • Lack of Capabilities. As we discussed in the chapter on motivation (Chapter 10), if people believe they lack the capabilities needed to implement the change, they may resist movement (even if they see the need for change).


  • Lack of Sufficient Incentives. If those affected by the change believe that the anticipated negative consequences of the change outweigh the positive consequences, resistance to movement is almost guaranteed. (Hitt, Black & Porter 2005, pp. 442-443)

Williams (2006) sees resistance to change from the standpoint of individual psychology. He cites Kurt Lewin’s Life Space theory to explain resistance to change. Lewin did most of his work in the 1930’s and followed the discoveries physics was making at that time. Inspired by the idea of field theory then being advanced in physics, Lewin’s Life Space was a model of the interaction between an individual’s needs and the psychological environment in which one finds oneself. According to Lewin, people are normally in a state of balance with their environment. When this balance is disturbed stress is produced and the individual is compelled to restore balance. Efforts to restore balance can result in either positive or negative outcomes (Schultz and Schultz 2004).  According to Williams, Lewin sees change in organizations as a three step process. First, “unfreezing” in which people come to believe that change is necessary. Next, “change intervention” during which workers undergo actual behavioral and work changes according to a structured plan. Finally “refreezing” in which the new behaviors and procedures become institutionalized as a formal part of operations (Williams 2006, p. 221). 

My perspective is that people resist change because of concerns about security, safety and predictability.  As long as we believe that a predictable series of events will occur we will feel safe. When that belief is threatened we no longer have that sense of predictability and we feel insecure or unsafe. For example, when a security guard enters our office, walks to the desk of a co-worker, hands them a note and then stares intently as our co-worker clears their desk then physically guides them out of the office, our sense of predictability is shattered. We no longer have a sense of predictability about our job because the reality of sudden and impersonal termination has been illustrated to us. Our environment is out of control; there is no sense of predictability and consequently our perception of safety and security is diminished or destroyed. Resistance to change is a product of the failure of leaders to create a compelling and inviting vision for the future that satisfies the need for predictability, and therefore feelings of safety and security.

Vic Napier




Hammer, M. (1996). Beyond reengineering: How the process-centered organization is changing our work and our lives (1st ed.). New York: HarperBusiness. 

Hitt, M. A., Black, S., & Porter, L. W. (2005). Management (1st ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. 

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A history of modern psychology (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth. 

Williams, C. (2006). Management (4th ed.). Mason, OH: Thomson Business and Economics.


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