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Explore 12 reasons why employees resist change in the workplace. Change is everywhere you turn in organizations these days. Understanding why employees resist change will help organizations and change makers to manage change effectively and successfully.

12 Reasons Why Employees Resist Change in the Workplace

By Catherine Adenle

Knowing the 12 reasons employees resist change in the workplace is vital to all leaders, change-makers and owners of change in every organization. Understand why employees resist change because this will help your organization to introduce and execute change successfully. There are more than 12 reasons why employees resist change in the workplace. However, for this article, we will highlight only 12 key ones because they are the most important reasons why employees resist change at all costs.

Unfortunately, when any change is announced, employees will not all respond with joy, glee and a punch into the air saying, ‘Brilliant, yet another organizational change! Bring it on! I’m very excited to be a part of it!’ Given that change is here to stay, there’s a need for leaders and organizations to know why employees resist change. Why do some employees dig in their heels and resist change at all costs?

These 12 reasons why employees resist change in the workplace will highlight the proven and tested reasons.

Employees resist change in the workplace because of various reasons. The primary reason why employees resist change at work is that of bad execution and management of change.

I love change management, but I don’t like any badly introduced and woefully managed change. In recent years, technological growth, the Information Age, changes in the global economy and the business environment have forced organizations to change how they do business. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, change is here to stay. Any companies that will not make changes risk being left behind and forgotten, risk competitors driving them out of business or possibly closure.

In companies, managers and supervisors are the ones who have to implement the changes cascaded down to them by CEOs or Directors. However, the traditional skills possessed by most of these managers do not include that of being an effective Change Agent.  In these rapidly changing times, managers need change management skills more than ever.

See Change Management: Critical Skill for Leaders

“About twenty percent of the people are against any change.” – Robert F. Kennedy

Well, Robert F. Kennedy once said, “About twenty per cent of the people are against any change.” My findings in the past support Kennedy’s theory. Regardless of your effectiveness as a leader, it is not uncommon to periodically find your well-planned change efforts being challenged or even sabotaged.

See Successful Change Implementation in Organizations: 4 Components (Infographic)

Admittedly, some people seem to come programmed with a fundamental distrust of any change and will work frantically to preserve “the way things used to be around here”. For this reason, organizational change does not come easy. For this reason, as many as two-thirds of organizational change management efforts fail spectacularly.


12 Reasons Why Employees Resist Change in the Workplace

Frankly, senior sponsors of change often blame their failure on employees and middle managers’ resistance to change. At times, this is true. However, senior leaders and managers often overestimate how much change they can successfully handle in an organization with no trained change agents. Some also do not understand how difficult it is to lead and implement change effectively. Leading and implementing change requires a lot of people skills as well as an engaged workforce! Knowing why employees resist change and guiding against the reasons and organizations being change-ready will allow any change effort to succeed.

See Change Management in Organisations: How to Get it Right First Time.

Expecting resistance to change and planning for it from the start of your change management programme will allow any organization to manage objections effectively. Understanding why employees resist or object to change will allow managers to plan the change strategy to address these factors. It’s impossible to be aware of all sources of resistance to change. However, expecting that there will be resistance to change and being prepared to manage resistance is a proactive step. Recognising behaviours that indicate resistance to change will raise awareness of the need to address the concerns.

See John Kotter on leading change in your organization

It is expected to resist change

Let’s face it: most people prefer predictability and stability in their personal and professional lives. So, people typically avoid situations that upset the order of things, threaten their self-interests, increase stress, or involve risks. When faced with changes to the status quo, people usually resist initially.

The resistance continues and, in some cases, increases until they can recognize the benefits of change and perceive the gains to be worth more than the risk or threats to their self-interests. I know people resist change because of a lack of communication – on the what, why, when, how, who and the support needed for those affected.

James O’Toole points out in his book, Leading Change, that people resist change due to the fundamental human objection to having the will of others imposed upon them – this, to me, is true. All sources of resistance to change must be acknowledged and people’s emotions validated. It’s far better to anticipate objections than to spend your time putting out fires, and knowing how to overcome resistance to change is a vital part of any change management plan.

The resistance to organizational change is rarely irrational. Employees resist change efforts from a perspective that makes perfect sense to them.

In practice, there are 12 reasons why people resist change in the workplace:

1. Loss of Job: This is a significant reason and the first of the 12 reasons employees resist workplace change. In an organizational setting, any process, technological advancement, systems, or product change will include streamlining, working smarter, cost reduction, efficiency, and faster turnaround times. All this means staff and managers will resist the changes that result in their roles being eliminated or reduced. From their perspective, your change harms their position in the organization! The satisfaction that employees have with their jobs determines a portion of their reactions during times of change.

Employees who experience a high degree of job satisfaction can better weather periods of change. They are more positive in their approach to their work and can see change as an organizational necessity. Unhappy employees, on the other hand, view change as just another annoyance in a long list of complaints. Chances are, whatever the change, any disgruntled employees will view it as hurting both the organization and them personally.

See Fear of Job Loss

2. Bad Communication Strategy: This is another crucial reason employees resist change. This point is equally as important as that of change planning on the list of 12 reasons why employees resist change in the workplace. Why? The communication of change from the onset could make or break change because it falls under the planning phase of change. How any change process is communicated to organisational employees is a critical factor in determining their reactions. If you can’t share what, why, how, when, who and what success will look like or how success will be measured, expect resistance!

If employees do not understand the need for change, why ask for a buy in the first place? Especially for those who strongly believe the current way of doing things works well…and has done for the past twenty-five years! When upper management plans and communicates early and effectively with all employees and explains the reasoning behind the change, employees are much more likely to buy into it.

Changes that are mandated with little or no communication, on the other hand, are often poorly received since employees may feel that the change is being shoved down their throats. When it comes to change management, there’s no such thing as too much communication. If there is no immediate information to communicate during the change, telling employees that there is no update regarding the ongoing change is communication! Don’t just keep quiet; this is also the time to maintain an open-door policy regardless of where you are in the organization.

Be present and available for questioning. Miscommunication is when you communicate insignificant or insensitive information. You can’t communicate too much significant, substantial information.

See Effective Communication Tools

3. Shock and Fear of the Unknown: This is another crucial reason employees resist change. Employees’ responses to organizational change can range from fear and panic to enthusiastic support. Some employees may need to cling to the past during change because it was a more secure, predictable time. If what they did in the past worked well for them, they may resist changing their behaviour out of fear that they will not achieve as much in the future. The less the organization knows about the change and its impact on them, the more fearful they become.

Leading a change also requires not springing surprises on people! The organization needs to be prepared for the change. Without continuing two-way communication with leadership, grapevine rumours will fill the void and sabotage any change effort.

See the Challenge of Change- Fear of the Unknown or See Managing Change: Managing People’s Fear

4. Loss of Control: This is a crucial reason employees resist change. Familiar routines help employees develop a sense of control over their work environment. Being asked to change their operations may make employees feel powerless and confused. People are more likely to understand and implement changes when they feel they have some form of control.

Keeping the doors of communication open and soliciting input, support, and help from employees let them know that their contributions matter. Involve them, elicit their feedback, and let them volunteer for participatory roles in the change. All of these, in turn, will help give them a sense of control during periods of change.

See Fear of Losing Control

5. Lack of Competence: This is another primary reason out of the 12 reasons employees resist workplace change. This is a fear that is difficult for employees to admit openly. But sometimes, change in organizations necessitates changes in skills, and some people will feel they won’t be able to make the transition well. Therefore, the only way for them to try and survive is to kick against the change.

Some employees resist change because they are hesitant to try new routines, so they are unwilling to learn anything new. They say, “I already know all that I need to know to do the job,” or “I am good at what I do; why rock the boat.” Resisting employees who have already decided that the change won’t work or are reluctant to learn something new will impede the organization’s growth and adaptation to change. Frankly, they also hinder their personal growth and development.

6. Poor Timing: This is another viable reason employees resist change at work. Change must be introduced when no other major initiatives are going on. Sometimes, it is not what a leader does but how, when, and why she or he does it which creates resistance to change! Undue resistance can occur because changes are introduced insensitively or at an awkward time.

For any significant organizational change effort to be effective, executive leadership must come out of their mahogany-panelled air-conditioned offices, roll up their sleeves, and prepare a comprehensive change strategy to address barriers. If they can’t do it, they should delegate or hire a change management agent to design an effective change management strategy with the help of some of the organizations’ managers.

7. Lack of Reward: A typical business says managers get what they reward. Organizational employees will resist change when they do not see anything in it regarding rewards. Without ‘WIIFM’ or a reward, there is no motivation to support the change over the long run. This often means that organizational reward systems must be altered to support the change management wants to implement. The reward does not always have to be significant or costly.

8. Office Politics: Every organization has its share of in-house politics. So, some employees resist change as a political strategy to “show or prove” that the change decision is wrong. They may also resist showing that the person leading the change is not up to the task. These employees are committed to seeing the change effort fail.

9. Loss of Support System: Employees already in their comfort zones, working with the managers they get along with, and who are operating within predictable routines, know their support system will back them up during challenging times. Changing the organizational structures may shake their confidence in their support system. They may worry about working for a new supervisor, in a new team, or on unfamiliar projects because they fear that if they try and fail, there will be no one there to support them.

10. Former Change Experience: Our attitudes about change are partly determined by how we have experienced the change. For instance, if you have handled change poorly in your organization in the past, the employees will have good reasons for rebelling. Again, in personal lives, how employees’ families react to change during their early years will affect how they view change. Employees who live in the same house, shop at the same stores, visit the same social club, and drive the same routes daily throughout their formative years may have more difficulty dealing with change than people who grew up in several different neighbourhoods. In the same way, those who become accustomed to associating with people with the same values and ethics may find it more challenging to appreciate the diversity of today’s workforce.

An employee raised in a family that views change as a challenge will probably have a more optimistic outlook than a person raised in a home that considers change an unwanted experience that upsets the predictable family routine.

11. Empathy and Peer Pressure: We are still social creatures, whether introverted or extroverted. Organizational stakeholders will resist change to protect the interests of a group, team friends, and colleagues. It is usual for employees to fight change to protect their co-workers. This could be pure because they sympathize with their friends because of the change thrust at them.  Managers, too, will resist change to protect their workgroups or friends. All these behaviours can sabotage the success of any change.

12. Lack of trust and support: Out of the 12 reasons why employees resist change in the workplace, this is yet another vital reason. Successful organizational change does not occur in a climate of mistrust. Trust involves faith in the intentions and behaviour of others. In organizations with a high degree of trust and each employee is treated with respect and dignity, there is less resistance to change.

Infographic: Reasons Why Employees Resist Change and How to Guide Against Resistance

Why Employees Resist Change (Infographic)

Mutual mistrust will be the bane of an otherwise well-planned change initiative. If an organization is seen as untrustworthy, as demonstrated sometime in the past, why would any employee trust such an organization? Any sweeping changes can cause employees to fear for their organisational roles. For this reason, well-planned outplacement support should be in place to manage and assist employees. Employees resist change because they worry they may not find another job easily and quickly.

As an employee, see the slides below to know how you can deal with Change in the Workplace –

View more presentations from Catherine Adenle

As a leader in an organization, see these slides below showing how you can initiate and manage Change in the Workplace:

Guiding Against Resistance – While we can’t change the behaviour of others, we can change our own. The following five tips will help an organization move forward, even if it faces a sea of resistance. Leaders must develop the proper attitude towards resistance to change and realize that it is neither good nor bad. Resistance can serve as a signal that there are ways in which the change effort should be modified and improved.

Organisations should share information with employees as soon as possible. However, this is a dilemma for public companies, where investor communication is a priority, and employees hear about a merger or reorganization on their car radio while on their way to work. Once fear and insecurity are heightened, an organization will waste a lot of time getting back to a place of order, understanding, and productivity, and many people will first head to their desks to update their CV, call employment agencies and their families.

Communication – Must be timely, straightforward, authentic, and consistent. It must contain reasons for the change, the plan, what needs to be achieved, and a question and answer segment at the end. Remember to use a variety of communication pathways and vehicles. Some organizations make an enormous mistake in using only one vehicle, such as e-mail or the company intranet site.

See 12 Most Effective Communication Channels for Change

Emotional Intelligence and Employee Participation – Managers should keep their eyes open and be available and present to support their staff. When anticipating a change, get the team members affected by that change involved early on. Find out what their fears are. What would it take for them to overcome those fears and support them?

Usually, people with high self-esteem and self-confidence are better equipped to deal with changes in their personal and organizational lives. They can see the change process from a broad perspective. They have confidence, not only in themselves but in the leadership above them. Self-confident people understand their part in the change process and see the value of dealing with change positively.

This positive mental outlook enables them to consider that the change process might even provide more significant opportunities for them and enhance their personal and career growth. Managers should look to use these employees first as their change evangelists. These employees could be given roles in the change management team. These people can help convert the employees who are resisting change. People don’t like recent changes, as they resent being changed. Don’t forget to include your most negative employees. Getting them involved will alert you to potential drawbacks and challenges.

12 Reasons Why Employees Resist Change

Listen, Listen and Listen – When you use questioning strategies to engage employees in searching for solutions and gathering support for change efforts, listening is highly critical. Listen with an open mind. Listen to all input. Focus on being positive rather than becoming defensive. When you are tempted to discount a contribution, ask for a repeat and further questions. The most successful leaders are those who are experts at asking the right questions and then really listening to the responses.

Focus on Solutions – It’s easy to get emotionally caught up when dealing with opposition and begin to see opposition as a “them against me” scenario. However, this is just the time when you need to maintain a clear, unemotional focus. As a leader, you must work hard to separate the people’s issues from the facts. One way to do this is to focus clearly on your goal or outcome. When you are tempted to blame others personally for your lack of progress, refocus on the reason for asking people to make changes. As you think about the problem that has created the need to change, ask yourself two questions, “What is it we need to accomplish?” and “What will it take to achieve our goals?” By focusing on solutions, you will channel your energies positively.

See 7 Undeniable Reasons Why Quick Adaptation to Change is Vital at Work

Forcing any change has its place. This approach alone is ineffective. However, managers who overuse this approach will harm their effectiveness over the long term. Without a thoughtful change strategy to address this area, leaders will trigger strong resistance and organizational turnover.

For more than 12 reasons why employees resist change in the workplace, see these slides:

See How Employees Can Swim or Sink During Change

Why do you think employees resist change? Have these 12 reasons why employees resist change in the workplace resonated? Have you been through an organizational change as an employee? How did you feel, and how did you cope? As a leader, have you had to manage employees’ resistance to change before? If so, we want to hear from you. Leave your comment below.

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Catherine Adenle
Founder, Catherine's Career Corner. The career site empowering and inspiring ambitious candidates of all ages and professions to thrive and work smarter on their careers. Gladly helping all career-minded people worldwide to explore their career, manage change and understand how new technologies are changing and enhancing the future of work.
Catherine Adenle
Catherine Adenle

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33 thoughts on “12 Reasons Why Employees Resist Change in the Workplace

  1. Catherine, this post is simply brilliant! Thanks. I will share it with my colleagues because we are in the process of introducing change in my organisation now. This will help us to plan it better. We don’t want to get it wrong as there are many staff involved. Ras

  2. As a change management professional, I can honestly say that this change article is excellent. Although long, but it’s been fun reading every word. The embedded presentations are also full of change management gold nuggets! I must stress that the difference between a bad organisational change and a good one is purely based on how well leaders plan, communication and act. If you get all these three right, then as a leader, you are on the right path.

  3. Great article, but I have one thing to add: if this new change is similar to a previous change or a change back, acknowledge this/do not insult your employees’ intelligence.
    I work for a large company which has many employees that have been around for years, and many of them have developed this kind of fatalistic, been there/done that attitude to change. Often it is a coping mechanism, but at time it is a justified reaction to the same or very similar changes being implemented several times over the years. I have been at the company for 10 years now, and have noticed old/previous procedures being implemented as the “new” way forward. One department in particular have gone through a change/change back/re-change loop twice now and this really makes me wonder what they are playing at, especially as none of the managers involved acknowledged this loop. This is turn makes me think that they are clueless or they think we are, either way it undermines their authority and breeds distrust.

  4. Thank you for an informative change management article. This is a time of uncertainty when an article like this is needed. I just hope companies think of how to manage change before initiating it. Stupidly, they do this in reverse order.

  5. The economic situation in Europe and everywhere have resulted in a number of companies making changes, I just hope they know that any change involving people should be paid extra attention. By the way, this is a brilliant change article. The presentations are great too.

  6. the information is great and helpful, i used it for my study helps a lot …many thanks catherine

  7. This is a robust change management article. Thanks for taking the time to write it, @catherineadenle, the presentations too are informative. Highly recommended piece of change article.

  8. Catherine, come and train them on how to execute change in my workplace because they suck at it. I like this post because resistance to change is normal.

  9. Pingback: Top 6 Strategies to Overcome Resistance to Change - WalkMe Blog

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