“Lower your shields and surrender the ships…Resistance is futile,” the Borg commanded captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek:  First Contact.  But is resistance really futile?  Why did captain Picard resist?  Was it the abrasive command and control approach of the Borg or was Picard standing up for something greater, like his values and way of life?  Power, technology, money and pure brawn can sometimes force a change but they can’t win you the hearts and minds essential to creating sustainable change in organizations.  Leaders must become adept at addressing and defusing resistance in all its forms.

Resistance in organizations is not just a heart-and-mind issue.  It’s alsoan issue of bottom-line, dollars and cents.  The cost of resistance is huge and cumulative and includes the obvious – time, money and increased attrition – as well as more hidden, human-toll costs, such as morale, career derailment, and stress-related employee health conditions.  One thing is certain, navigating change without engaging the hearts and minds of your people can produce nothing greater than an army of compliant soldiers who exert just enough effort to stay under the radar, and at worst an army of saboteurs. This article will help you get from resistance to commitment.

No person, organization, or entity is immune to change or resistance. The press is littered with high profile stories, both personal and industrial, like the many failed attempts by Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston or the foiled attempts of behemoth organizations attempting to forge a new path like Daimler/Chrysler, Hewlett Packard/Compaq, and the still embattled Health Care Reform Act.  These are all great examples of change gone awry reminding us that resistance can derail or slow any initiative and that the inability to change can lead to catastrophe failures. The real lesson here however is that change is part of life and resistance is a universal norm. Still, one has to wonder, why some changes are sustained while others fail?


A quick search on the Internet to define “resistance”, yielded many interesting responses, from the classical Freudian definition about clients blocking memories to electrical references about a conductor opposing the flow of energy.  For this article, I propose the following definition:   

“What an individual or group of individuals might say or not say,

 do or not do, when they do not embrace a proposed new way of

doing things or the methods used to implement them.” 

This definition highlights the many potential permutations of resistance, but does little to help us understand its biological or psychological underpinnings. 

The Brain

During periods of change, we are all particularly vulnerable to strong emotions.  The cause of these can be attributed to an evolutionary survival mechanism that originates in the autonomic nervous system and more specifically in the sympathetic nervous system which mobilizes our bodies to “fight” or “take flight” when we experience even remotely threating stimuli like the idea of change or loss.  Historically this mechanism has served us well in physically dangerous situations.  But, in today’s modern society the threats we face are more likely to be change and the subsequent fear of the unknown that it can bring versus threats to our physical safety. Consequently, this mechanism can seem outdated or even obsolete because it’s not appropriate to “fight” or even “run away” from a colleague who verbally or emotionally pushes us out of our comfort zones, even if these are the only two options that our survival mechanisms afford us.

What is essential to this discussion however is the fact that this Acute Stress Response (aka Fright, Fight of Flight Response) is hardwired to bypass the thinking and rational parts of our brain (neo-cortex) causing us to react in ways that seem completely at odds with effective outcomes and our general modus operandi.  While examples of fighting or abandoning the workplace are altogether rarely seen, variations on fighting (like yelling and assuming a posture of dominance) are commonplace.  A modern form of escape may be to go silent, disengage, or completely check out allowing someone else to take the hot seat or limelight. 

Many Permutations

The definition and basic biology covered above are offered as a simple explanation for the many permutations of resistance.  It can be overt or covert, passive or active, conscious or unconscious.  Examples of overt passive resistance include a work slow-down, missed deadlines, or not following through on agreements while covert passive resistance includes quietly disengaging from a person, process or discussion.  I have also encountered people who just, “go along to get along.”  The aim of passive resistance is to avoid direct conflict (i.e., taking flight).  In contrast, overt active resistance is easy to identify because it’s aggressive, loud and often results in visible acts of defiance and/orarguing.  Covert active resistance, on the other hand, is skillfully disguised by its perpetrators who seek to appear as if not resisting while actively engaging in various forms of sabotage including gossip and badmouthing.  Lastly, unconscious resistance can be defined as those behaviors or words that seep because our thinking and rational brain have been hijacked cueing us to the fact that underlying emotions want to be acknowledged or expressed.


Common wisdom would have us believe we’re born severely allergic to,or at least uncomfortable with, change.  However, every day we see plenty of evidence to the contrary.   Couples get married, children are born, people die, families move houses, traffic detours are encountered, and spontaneity seems to be embraced without much fanfare, drama, stress, or collateral damage.  The truth is that while there may be some people who really hate change, for the most part as a species we’re all far better at accepting it than folklore might have us believe.  One might even argue that our survival as a species is a testament to our innate abilities to adapt.   If this is true, and it isn’t the actual change itself that causes resistance, what does?

Perceived Loss

The list of potential factors causing resistance may be quite long.  However, the pioneering research of the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1969) into death and dying led us to understand that all change is fundamentally an emotional process related to loss.  Even today, most if not all models explaining organizational change can be linked back to her 5 stages of grief (shock, denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance).  More recently, Ronald A. Heifetz (2009), author of “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership”, affirmed this notion when he stated that people resist loss – not change

Other Causes of Resistance

As stated above, there are potentially countless causes to resistance during change initiatives.  I have highlighted several important ones above because they seem to underpin many of the others I have encountered.  However, given the many personal factors that can influence a change process, I have decided to share some of the more common reasons identified by former clients: 

  1.  No compelling rationale or vision for the change  
  2. Fear that change means loss of job/security.
  3. Lack of opportunities for input or involvement.
  4. Potential loss of identity/status (i.e., expert, or leader/ power, or freedom, and, etc.).
  5. Lack of training or skills development.
  6. Change fatigue (physical, and/or mental).   
  7. Confusion about priorities.
  8. Lack of bandwidth to fully commit (time, energy, people, or money). 
  9. Feelings of loss related to old habits, relationships, or processes.
  10. History of bad experiences with change (recent and/or related to personal history).

While this list is not exhaustive, it’s important to note that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for managing resistance.  How you manage someone who genuinely hates change itself needs to be different from how you respond to someone who expresses different albeit related concerns.  But, you can’t know what’s required if you assume all resistance is the same.


The methods for preventing, minimizing and managing resistance are as varied as the underlying causes.  While we need to address each person’s concerns individually, there are many opportunities throughout the change process to improve engagement on both a visceral and intellectual level.


Perhaps the most effective way to minimize resistance and create an environment where employees take responsibility for change is to involve them early on.  Having stakeholders define a problem ensures ownership and helps them to fully understand the compelling rationale and urgency of your initiative.  Unfortunately many change initiatives tend to be top down.  While this seems expedient, it often creates a “disconnect” between the layers of your organization and can slow or even cause initiatives to fail.  Although, it isn’t cost effective to broadly engage all potential stakeholders, any effort to include your various constituencies is helpful.  Over time they become the evangelist who yield influence throughout your organization creating the critical mass that drives success. 

If your decision for change is top down,creating opportunities for stakeholders to influence the plan (how) and timeline (when) will help them to recapture some control over their immediate circumstances.  This will reduce their feelings of being victimized and instead help them to feel respected, trusted and valued.  The goal is to create ownership at every level and to transform passive observers into active change agents.

Information and Communication

During transformations, information is key, and it’s important that it be timely and consistent.  In the absence of sound information people connect the dots to create their own narrative.  This leads to rumors that can be wildly inaccurate and hard to control.  Information is especially important when stakeholders have not been involved in defining a change process.  People need to understand the rationale on both a logical and emotional level.  The more compelling and specific a vision, the more actionable it will be. 

Take care to use all mediums of communication, as people respond differently to different methods. Consider the marketing rule of thumb, which says that individuals need to hear a message 7 times before it sinks in and prompts action.  It is not uncommon to hear leaders say, “But I had an all hands meeting and they still complain that we’re not communicating.” Communication is not a speech and needs to be a two-way iterative process where ideas are shared and considered.  While agreement and action on every issue raised is never possible, ensuring that people feel understood and respected needs to be the goal.   

Active Listening and Empathy

Sometimes, despite our best efforts it’s just not possible to prevent resistance.  In those instances, active listening and empathy are the preferred tools for deescalating anger and responding to feelings of loss.  This will also provide you opportunities to learn from people on the ground how best to tweak a process to optimize positive impact.  An environment where employees feel heard, understood and respected even when parties disagree is far more motivating than one where none of these basics are met. Change leaders need to check their own defensiveness when encountering resistance.  Defensiveness only drives resistance underground making it much harder to manage.  Providing employees a fair hearing and responding with empathy may not solve all their issues but is surprisingly effective at helping them to engage appropriately. 

Clear Direction

Once you’ve met the need for a compelling rationale and a clear vision, people going through a change process require clear direction that is actionable and manageable.  “Take the hill” or “implement the new ERP system” may be too overwhelming and does not identify the specific actions required to move forward successfully.  When implementing “big hairy goals”, chunking them into smaller nuggets can help to build confidence, and give those working on the front lines a way to measure and celebrate their progress.  Engagement will be easier and commitment greater if we work to remove all ambiguity from the change process by establishing clear timelines, organizational structures (reporting lines), processes, roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities. 

Acknowledgement and Encouragement

It’s not uncommon for change leaders to focus disproportionately on the few who are being disruptive and inadvertently forget to acknowledge the brave efforts of the majority.  Watering every action that continues to move your effort forward, even if it misses the mark is essential.  Given the temporary loss of control, morale, and confidence that some experience during transitions, your words of encouragement will be helpful.  Remember that any movement toward you goal is positive movement.  If you do not water the seeds of change, then they will never blossom into flowers.


While creating commitment during organizational change is no small feat, it’s within our reach, if we remember that resistance while sometimes costly is normal and not always bad.  In fact, it can be quite helpful by highlighting opportunities for improving your plan, process or employee engagement.  How we implement change and respond to resistance can either help or hinder our effort.  Like Picard, our teams do not resist out of hubris but because they fear losing values or beliefs that they genuinely care about.  What research and experience has taught us is that early inclusion is key.  Timely and consistent communications, a fair hearing, clear direction, and a healthy dose of acknowledgement, not only reduce resistance but also foster an environment where teams can “Engage!”