Resistance to Change is a Management Myth

by Brian Brittain on January 25, 2017


How many times, and for how long, have so many of us said that “people resist change”?   I have said it for years, as one of those statements that I assumed was true but without adequately thinking about it.  Now, thirty-five years into the game of individual and organizational change, I see things differently.  My experience has finally dispelled that myth for me.  I do not see people resisting change.  However I do see them reacting to their anticipation of loss in the change process.  The anticipation of loss is often an unrealistic response and not a realistic one.  Unrealistic, because it is based on emotion and not on fact.  It is often a projection of their own fears and self-protection mechanisms.  Robert Kegan calls this, the immunity to change response.  Fred Kiel refers to it as our personal security system, which needs to be disarmed, before we can progress.  When their response is unrealistic or based in emotion, we can help them safely see that their internal immunity response or security system is both unrealistic and therefore not required for their personal well-being and success.   We can help those people see things differently.  We can help them let go of their fears, based on an unrealistic threat, and move toward embracing the change we hope to benefit them and the community they interact with.  We can help them see that what they think they might lose, is either a fiction altogether, or at least of less importance to them than they thought.

Choices are Made More Irrationally than Rationally

Many of us assume we make rational decisions and choices, but science has recently shown us that we don’t.  We generally make irrational (emotional) choices and decisions, based on our embedded and unconscious beliefs, habits, and assumptions.  We all have stories or descriptions of reality that aren’t always accurate or useful.  Not only that, but we make behavioural choices, thinking we are being rational.  Therefore what we do is respond to change, unconsciously and irrationally and then rationalize those decisions post hoc.

I have a client who is a senior executive running two business units in a large global firm.  Jim reports to the CEO who was frustrated with him because he never voiced his opinion in the senior team meetings.  He only spoke when he had something technical or concrete to say about his own business unit.  To a fault, Jim knew EVERYTHING that was going on in his business unit.  He was a classic micro-manager, but that is another coaching story.  In my coaching assignment with him, he discovered that he had an unconscious belief, that he could never be wrong or not know.  Therefore he only spoke about topics he was absolutely sure about.  Obviously this belief was unrealistic.  Everybody makes mistakes.  His CEO wasn’t asking for perfection, just opinions on things.  Jim was embarrassed to discover that his embedded belief to be always right was running his behaviour in the first place.  Not only was it irrational but it had been hidden to him.  That irrational belief owned him and therefore limited his effectiveness as a senior executive.  Exposing it, meant that he now owned that belief, rather than it owning him, and could then investigate its accuracy.  He had discovered and released his foot on the brake.

Like many of you, I am in the business of helping individuals, teams, and organizations make changes.  I get hired to help because there is a belief that people are going to resist the changes we think are for everyone’s overall betterment.  My job is to advise on and design forums and processes intended to help individuals, teams and organizations to “overcome the resistance to change”.  As I stated earlier, I have come to realize that this is barking up the wrong tree, or trying to solve the wrong problem, or actually a non-existent problem.   People are not resisting change.  They change all the time, as long as the anticipation of securing personal gain is greater than their fear of personal loss.

We Desire to Avoid Loss more than Secure Gain……

One of the breakthrough ideas of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, psychologists, who are well documented in the books, Think Fast and Thinking Slow, for which Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economics, and The Undoing Project, written by Michael Lewis, who documents their working relationship and their findings, was the following.

“We desire to avoid loss more than we desire to secure gain.”  This is really useful to know when designing change processes, as I think we tend to focus on the perception of benefits rather than helping with the anticipation of loss.

Kahneman and Tversky have defined loss as, “A loss was when you anticipated ending up worse than your status quo.”  In my experience, when change is initially presented to a person or group, they will often anticipate the experience as a threat to their current self-image or comfortable status-quo.   In other words, a loss of their self-identity or how they make sense of the world around them.

This powerful discovery, through numerous experiments with students, physicians, politicians, financial advisors, helps explain why the force of playing not to lose can override the force of playing to win.  Personal security and safety become an unconscious priority with too much control over our behaviour.  Self-protection is often a stronger priority than personal development and progress.  This fundamental reality of human nature plays out in individual, team and organizational behaviour.  This desire is not rational, and is usually unconscious, until it is pointed out to us.

Recently, I was leading an internal design team that was charged with recommending structural changes to the company.  One of the members of the team refused to agree with the others on what the others all felt was the appropriate transfer of staff, from one department to another.   Bill had lots of “regulatory” (rational) reasons why this shouldn’t happen, which didn’t totally hold water for the others.  Through coaching and nudging Bill, privately, he was finally able to confess his anxiety about losing some of his staff, and what this meant to his identity and career.  It wasn’t until after a long chat with the CEO who reassured Bill that by transferring some of his front line staff, and the less complex operational tasks from his department to the other, would free him up from much of his day to day supervisory work.  This would allow him to do more interesting strategic and developmental work in his area that had been neglected because of no time.  He saw, how this change of work, would actually stimulate him intellectually, and ultimately help his career, rather than hurt it.  Again, with difficulty and humility, Bill had discovered his unconscious foot on the brake, and released it so he could begin to move forward.

It’s the Description of Reality, not Reality, that makes the Difference

Another powerful insight from Kahneman and Tversky was the following.

People do not choose between things.  They choose between descriptions of things.”

So, any change project has to have the built in design of both, minimizing the likelihood or reality of actual loss, as well as, actually helping people see that their internal description, or the story they tell themselves (John’s idea of losing something, overriding any advantage of the potential gains), is not accurate.  We can do this through helping them understand and accept a more realistic description or frame of the desired changes.  In this case, it was John’s CEO framing of the change in his area, so that he was able to anticipate that change as more of a gain and less of a loss.  John had replaced descriptions of the same change.   John no longer felt personally threatened by embracing the change.

Our job then is to create, and communicate a more accurate and useful description of the pros and cons of the change process.  Useful in the sense, that this description legitimately helps others see that there are benefits for them personally in making the change, and possibly negative consequences for not making the changes.  Telling the truth, but describing that truth in a way that is more useful in helping individuals or groups mobilize around the changes for a better adapted position, individually or organizationally.

If one sees that the anticipated loss or threat is not a real threat to one’s well-being, than the foot on the brake has been discovered and released and one can now move forward into a brave new world.  Obviously what else is helpful is helping others understand how the desired change of behaviour will likely lead to a beneficial gain to them, along with seeing that the anticipated loss is not as real as they thought.    In other words, I no longer have to organize my personal strategy and subsequent behaviour around playing not to lose.  I can now play to win.

Updated Criteria for Change

So, I think a useful set of criteria to upgrade the requirements for making changes would be

  1. Communicate with others the net benefit or gain of the required changes for all stakeholders.
    Why is it important to do this? What is in it for me?
  2. Understand the fear of loss (identity, relationships, power and influence, etc.) that the various stakeholders may be telling themselves. In what ways are the story I am telling myself, and my emotional response not accurate and not helpful to me or others?
  3. Help others understand their own personal immunity to change, based on beliefs, habits and assumptions which are no longer accurate and useful for them. How am I keeping one foot on the brake that is holding me back and undermining my progress?
  4. Understand the personal and organizational implications and costs for not making the change. What might happen to me, if I don’t participate in the change? What are the personal and organizational consequences for failed change?
  5. Provide the support and scaffolding to let go of old habits, and develop new habits leading to desired behaviour change.  What support will I get to make and sustain the change?
  6. Help the new behaviours become habits by constantly telling the stories of success. What will prevent us from falling back into old habits and behaviours and pull us toward our desired future?


For me the most important insight to derive from this is that making change is not just a technical set of initiatives.  It requires personal adaptive behavioural change from individuals and groups of people.  Adaptive change requires seeing that most of our choices are driven by irrational and unconscious beliefs and assumptions.  This is what keeps us stuck.  Before personal and organizational change can be successful, we need to look hard at the stories we are telling ourselves, and see how those stories own us and dictate our attitudes and behaviours.  We then need to expose and confess to those stories, and test them for accuracy and usefulness for our personal and organizational success.

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