Organizational Resistance to Change

It has been broadly reported that change is happening at an accelerated rate in organizations. As a result, employees are constantly required to understand the changes, cope with the challenges, and ultimately adapt. In this environment, a typical employee response is to resist the change. A recent review of empirical research on reactions to change found cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of resistance. The shock, anger, resistance, acceptance (SARA) model of organizational change is a pragmatic way of looking at the different stages of reactions to change. Although these reactions are not universal, nor are they necessarily linear, the point remains that organizations benefit from considering that employees may need time to work through the process of dealing with organizational change before they move to acceptance. By leaping forward too quickly, organizational leadership may bring about either direct or indirect resistance to organizational change efforts.

Underlying Reasons for Organizational Resistance to Change

Organizational change can affect individuals in a number of ways. From potential job loss to increased job opportunities, the costs and benefits of organizational changes to employees are often unpredictable. To effectively address organizational resistance to change, it is important to understand the reasons. Potential reasons why employees may resist organizational change include the following:

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  • Employees may not understand why the changes are occurring.
  • Employees do not understand what the changes entail.
  • Employees do not know how they will be affected.
  • Skills may become obsolete and new skills may be required.
  • Organizational structures and systems are not aligned with the change (e.g., rewards and recognition).
  • There is a culture of mistrust brought on by prior ineffective changes.

These are just a sample of reasons underlying potential resistance to organizational change. At a deeper level, resistance can be brought about by feelings of fear regarding what the change may bring and lack of control of the process of change.

Models of Reactions to Organizational Change

A variety of process models describing employee reactions to change exist. Typically, these models have been developed in a pragmatic context and have not been the subject of empirical evaluation. The SARA model has been used in a variety of contexts, including reactions to loss, organizational change, and reactions to feedback. Another widely used change model that looks at the transitions individuals go through was developed by William Bridges. This model proposes the following three stages:

Ending, Loosing, and Letting Go. During this stage, people are dealing with letting go of the way things were before the change. The general thrust is that before beginning something new, people need to let go of what had been before. The emotional reactions often resemble a grief process.

The Neutral Zone. This is the phase when the old ways have ended, but the change is not complete. The new ways of doing things are neither fully implemented nor understood. This can be a difficult time for employees because they are unsure about what is required of them and they are caught between the two, often conflicting, ways of doing things. The emotional reactions can be frustration and confusion. Guiding people through the neutral zone is a primary target of change management activities.

The New Beginning. This is the final phase of the transition process when people engage with the new ways of doing things. There is a new sense of clarity and purpose that the change has brought about. The emotional reactions often include relief and guarded excitement.

Suggestions for Addressing Organizational Resistance to Change

The management literature provides a variety of suggestions regarding how to deal with change. Whether based on theoretical models or on practical experience, several categories of suggestions are common:

Define a Communication Strategy

  • Communicate why the change is occurring. The purpose of the change must be clear for employees to fully accept the change.
  • Include a clear vision of the future state. This can help address fear of the unknown and inspire commitment.
  • Detail the benefits to the organization and to employees. When done with regard to the future state, this can help in gaining the personal buy in of employees. They need to know what is in it for them.

Communicate in a Timely, Clear, and Consistent Fashion

  • Inform employees as soon as possible of the change. Once it is clear what will happen, it is better that employees find out directly from management rather than from outside sources, such as public media, or from rumors building inside the organization.
  • Consider the needs of the audience when communicating. Target the message at their key concerns and adapt the communication style that is used; for example, avoid jargon.
  • Be consistent in the messages that are delivered. Keeping the message simple can help with consistency over time and across communications.
  • Communicate honestly. Even if something is unknown about the change, it is better to share this fact directly with employees than to attempt a contrived answer.

Encourage Employee Input and Discuss Employee Reactions

  • Whenever possible, involve employees in decisions that affect them. Involving employees enhances their feelings of control and reduces resistance.
  • Allow opportunities for employees to share their reactions to the change, good and bad. As the SARA model suggests, employees can go through some strong emotional reactions. By allowing employees to express these feelings in an appropriate context, everyone can move on toward acceptance.
  • Celebrate successes to inspire commitment to change. It is more difficult to resist a change that successfully brings about positive outcomes for the organization and employees.

Provide Training and Support for the Change

  • When employees’ skills may be affected, provide the necessary development support. Employees may resist changes that make their skills obsolete. Training employees to meet new job requirements reduces resistance. Some employees may see the change as an opportunity to enhance their skills.
  • Ensure that reward and recognition systems are aligned to support the change. This is a common mistake and needs to be directly addressed.


  1. Bridges, W. (2003). Managing transitions (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. Organizational Climate 545
  2. Lawson, E., & Price, C. (2003). The psychology of change management [Special edition]. McKinsey Quarterly, 2, 30-39.
  3. McAllaster, C. (2004). The 5 Ps of change: Leading change by effectively using leverage points within an organization. Organizational Dynamics, 33, 318-328.
  4. Piderit, S. K. (2000). Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: A multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change. Academy of Management Review, 25, 783-794.

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