5 Common Causes of Resistance to Change in Organizations (+ Tips)

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causes of resistance to change

It’s easy to get excited about making changes in your organization when you’re the force behind the change, but not everyone may share your enthusiasm.

Imagine you’re implementing a new CRM for your organization. You’ve been working on this project in the background for a while, and now you’re ready to get started – but you’re getting resistance to change from all sides, resistance that is hugely impacting your change management plan.

Maybe some people are digging in their heels and refusing to adopt the new system. Others may be frustrated and confused by the software but are afraid to speak up. Meanwhile, morale is low, and tensions are high. If the situation is mishandled, the transition to your new CRM is bound to fail.

While resistance is somewhat natural and inevitable, it’s not insurmountable. To overcome it, you must understand the reasons behind the resistance and work to move past them.

What are the top causes of resistance to change?

  • Mistrust and lack of confidence
  • Emotional responses
  • Fear of failure
  • Poor communication
  • Unrealistic timelines

What Is Resistance to Change?

Resistance to change is the reluctance of adapting to change when it is presented. Employees can be either overt or covert about their unwillingness to adapt to organizational changes. This can range from expressing their resistance publicly, to unknowingly resisting change through their language or general actions.

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Individual resistance vs organizational resistance

  • Individual resistance occurs whens employees resist change based on their unique perceptions, personalities, and needs. Things like job security, habit, and economic factors have a massive influence on individual resistance.
  • Organizational resistance is the tendency for an organization as a whole to resist change and want to maintain the status quo. Companies that suffer from organizational resistance become inflexible and are unable to adapt to environmental or internal demands for change. Some of the signs that organizational resistance is in play include internal power struggles, poor decision-making processes, and bureaucratic organizational structures.

5 Most Common Reasons for Organizational Change Resistance in 2023

While there can be several reasons why an employee is resistant to organizational change, here are the five most common reasons:

1. Mistrust and lack of confidence

When employees don’t trust or feel confident in the person making the change, their resistance to it can be a huge barrier. Change advisor and author Rick Maurer believes that lack of confidence in change-makers is the most overlooked cause of resistance to change in organizations.


Maurer’s 3 Levels of Resistance to Change are: I don’t get it, I don’t like it, and I don’t like you. That’s right — people may not resist the change itself, but rather the person making it. Of course, “you” does not always refer to the change-maker specifically. It could also be someone the change-maker represents, such as corporate headquarters or a faceless CEO.

2. Emotional responses

Changing the status quo is difficult, and some people may have emotional reactions to anything that disrupts their routine. This is a natural and inevitable response. Brushing it off will only lead to stronger resistance.

Use change management models that focus on emotional reactions to change, such as the Kübler-Ross Change Curve or Bridges Transition Model, to mitigate this common cause of resistance to change. Both models recognize that change can lead to feelings of loss and grief. As such, change-makers must be prepared to manage these emotions and move people towards acceptance of the change.

Start by coaching change leaders to approach resistance to change with empathy, acknowledging that people may have a wide range of emotional reactions. Some may even skip steps in the Kübler-Ross Change Curve, slide back into old habits, or have negative reactions multiple times throughout the transition.

To manage these reactions, change leaders should clearly explain the need for change while also listening attentively to the feedback from those affected by it. People want to feel heard. Make it clear that their opinions are valuable to the change process.

Change leaders should also check in frequently to provide support, gather additional feedback, and nudge people towards change acceptance and adoption.

3. Fear of failure

People won’t support a change if they’re not confident in their abilities to adapt to it. When people feel threatened by their shortcomings (real or imagined), they protect themselves from failure by resisting the change.

The ADKAR Model has two goals that address the fear of failure: knowledge and ability.

Knowledge is all about effective training. The goal is to give people the tools they need to facilitate the change, including those needed to handle transitions. 

Take technological change for example – if your company is integrating a new software system, employees should know how to move existing information into it, as well as how to make the most of the new system in the future.

Ability is more about self-confidence. After training, people need to feel comfortable applying the knowledge they have acquired. Give employees enough hands-on experience to develop and test their new skills before fully launching the change.

4. Poor communication

The key to excellent change management communication is to create an active conversation. When you talk at people as opposed to with people, you’re bound to get pushback and resistance to change.

Start by making a change communication plan. Before you initiate change, you should have several communication actions planned, such as the announcement of the change, small group discussions, one-on-one meetings, and methods for gathering feedback.

When talking with employees about change, answer the questions, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) and “What does it mean to me?” (WDIMTM). When you address individual concerns, you increase their engagement. People want to know how the change will impact them specifically and what they will need to do to implement and solidify the change.

Furthermore, providing continuous motivation throughout the change process is essential. Kotter’s 8-Step Change Theory highlights the importance of focusing on short-term wins in step six of the eight-step change process. When employees are recognized for their efforts, it builds their enthusiasm and desire to support the change

5. Unrealistic timelines

Find a balance between creating a sense of urgency and allowing time to transition. Don’t force change too quickly – when you push too hard for a change to happen, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and neglect important elements of your change plan.

Start with a change implementation timeline. Map out every action and set deadlines so you have a general idea of how long the entire transformation will take. Often, designing the path between the current state and change adoption helps you identify additional steps needed to facilitate the transition.

Of course, you shouldn’t be afraid to make adjustments. If your team needs more time to understand the change or would benefit from additional training, make it happen.

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7 Tips to Overcome Resistance to Change

Here are a few of the best strategies to overcome change resistance in your organization.

1. Show value through education and training

To avoid change resistance, provide proof that a new process, tool, or change will greatly benefit your employees. Prioritize educating your teams on how this new change will directly make their lives better and improve their day-to-day, and provide ongoing training to ensure they feel confident and comfortable navigating the new change.

2. Collect employee input prior to change

Many times, employees resist change because they believe their opinion doesn’t matter and wouldn’t impact the decision to make an organizational change. Run surveys with your team on how they feel about the change and how they would make the process easier.

3. Come to an agreement with your employees

Never make a decision without consulting those on the front lines – your employees. After consulting with your team, come to an agreement on the timeline and overall plan for managing and implementing a new change.

4. Include employees in the change management plan

Employees feel they are taken seriously and their opinion matters when they’re included in processes. Be sure to add key members of your team into the change management and implementation process so they feel ownership of the project.

5. Support your employees during organizational transformation

Don’t leave your employees out on an island – support your team members with resources, change management tools, knowledge bases, and training on the new process or tool you’re implementing. This will help your employees find value in a new system quickly, causing them to build trust with you when it

6. Communicate clearly and frequently

Letting employees know about changes to the status quo as soon as possible helps to build a bridge between employees and management. 

Share any information you have with employees that you are able to share. If you’re not sure about an answer or simply cannot provide an answer, it’s okay to say something like, “I’ll look into that and follow up with you” or, “I’ll share that information with you as soon as I have it.” The more open and honest your communication with them, the less likely they are to speculate and spiral.

7. Measure the performance of your organizational change

Measurement is a key factor in the change process because it allows organizations to understand how the implementation influences overall business performance. If something doesn’t go as planned, there’s an opportunity to change it or include it in the next phase of the change implementation.

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Conclusion: You can't avoid change, but you can work through it

Anticipating and planning for resistance is an essential aspect of implementing positive organizational change. When you dig into the reasons behind the resistance to change, you’re better prepared to address it and move past it, regardless of which type of organizational change you undergo within your company.

If you’re looking to build on your change management skills, check out our list list of the best certification programs to opt for to attain an attestation of being an expert in the field.

Be sure to gather support for your change through change leaders, training tools, and employee engagement.

Learn how Whatfix can design solutions that help overcome resistance to change through detailed guidance, faster onboarding, and ongoing support.

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