Will Change Resistors Change?

Craig Brown at Better Projects:

Here's an idea that was suggested to me today; People who resist change will still change.  They just change slower than others.  Why?  The idea is that resistors are really trying to hold the status quo.  If your early adopters and the middle packs move on to the new way of thinking and doing business the status quo eventually changes.  After a while your change resistors have adopted the new status quo.

I think this idea is partly true: some change resisters are indeed likely to come around and accept a new “future state”, given time.  But I would suggest two caveats to keep in mind when considering this.

First, it assumes the planned change actually happens, and is sufficiently successful that you eventually reach the “new status quo” you intended to reach.  That’s by no means a foregone conclusion.  Indeed, that this so often fails to happen is one driver behind the rise of organizational change management as a discipline.  Resistance to change can be so disruptive that it derails a change initiative completely or worse, results in a future state that the organization did not intend, and that leaves it worse off than it was in the beginning.  If you are attempting to implement a major system or process change, and the new status quo turns out to be that you can no longer fulfill orders or respond to customer inquiries, the question of whether change resisters will eventually adapt to this state of affairs is suddenly the least of your problems.  Indeed, you may discover the change resisters were trying to tell you something important.

Second, it’s not universally true.  People resist change for a lot of different reasons, some of them perfectly rational, others less so.  Whether a given person comes to accept the new status quo, and how long it takes, will depend in part on the person and in part on their motivation.  When change is managed well, and stakeholder perspectives given proper attention, some people will be won over before the change, some will be won over in time, and realistically, some will never accept the change, and will eventually leave the organization one way or another.  In the end, even people who are willing to be “won over” will be more or less persuaded depending on how the change is presented, and how they are treated over the course of change.  That’s one reason why a good change management plan will seek to anticipate sources of change resistance—both the resisters and their motivations—and develop appropriate approaches for responding to each.


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