How to deal with resistance to change: part 1

Chances are you’ve been involved in change in your workplace or your business. With the opportunities and challenges that digital technology brings, it’s more important than ever to recognise your own and your team’s emotions around change. If you’re a leader or facilitator, you may find yourself dealing with the feelings and behaviours that stem from change more often than you used to.

As a business improvement facilitator, I deal with resistance to change in almost every coaching session, workshop or review I undertake. Very memorably, I even worked with a team who arrived wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with the words “Resistance is Futile!” Although I was an internal consultant, and this was my colleagues’ idea of a joke, I recognise this phrase is borne out of widespread concerns about change.

In this blog I’m covering:

  • the signs and reasons for resistance
  • sources of further information
  • introducing strategies to deal with resistance

In future blogs, I’ll share more detail on my approach,  top tips and personal learning around dealing with resistance.

Resistance: signs and reasons

Why do people always seem resistant to change?

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author and professor at Harvard Business School is one of my personal gurus with her common sense approach. She succinctly describes ten key reasons why people resist change here.

My experience of the reported reasons for resistance echoes Rosabeth’s conclusions, and  include:

  • lack of capability
  • loss of power
  • hassle factor
  • increased workload

However, all have one thing in common. They’re all associated with the fear of the unknown and the possible (not probable) consequences of what the change may bring. This fear may turn out to be unfounded, or even irrational. However, my plan and approach as a facilitator is to:

  • encourage the group to be open and honest about their fears
  • identify common objectives to encourage teambuilding
  • engage the team in tools to collaborate and improve
  • skill the team to improve their attitude and capability to change

As for signs of change, these may not be at all obvious, as people tend to mask their fear and vulnerability in a professional or work situation. These signs are often automatic coping mechanisms so people may not even be aware they are exhibiting them. Which makes the role of a facilitator even more challenging, as the initial priority is to surface these fears. These more hidden signs may include:

  • lack of confidence
  • inertia, lack of motivation
  • hostility, tension, conflict
  • humour, flippancy
  • other behaviours that divert attention away from change

Strategies for dealing with change

I combine my interest in psychology and lean leadership styles into a practical, hands-on way of dealing with change. By going to the people in their place of work, I have the best chance of:

  • influencing them to work collaboratively (lose their boxes)
  • identify their burning platform
  • showing them ‘what’s in it for them’.

This gives me a distinct opportunity to convert the cynics who are unlikely to enter into coaching or leadership programmes voluntarily.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter perfectly describes what leaders and facilitators can do to minimise this fear.

Although leaders can’t always make people feel comfortable with change, they can minimize discomfort. Diagnosing the sources of resistance is the first step toward good solutions. And feedback from resistors can even be helpful in improving the process of gaining acceptance for change.”

So, Part 1 of this Blog has discussed some the reasons for resistance to change, Part 2, below, looks at some of the tools I’ve found useful to help deal with this challenging and common situation.

How to deal with resistance to change: part 2


How to deal with resistance to change: part 2

Part 2 describes in more detail some of the tools and approaches I’ve found helpful over the years in these roles.

My first piece of advice is that it’s vital to get emotions out in the open, because the reality is very rarely as bad as the paranoia around the ‘what ifs’. To do this I use two main tools:

  • Hopes and Concerns
  • Force Field Analysis

Hopes and Concerns

Getting emotions out into the open

How does Hopes and Concerns help to deal with resistance to change? It’s a very simple team exercise, which can also be done in pairs or initially as silent brainstorming. What I choose depends on available time and my reading of the room. It’s best to limit people or pairs to three Hopes, and three Concerns initially.

Because it is so simple, participants don’t get confused or nervous. People usually have a lot on their mind during initial stages of change projects, so are ready to let their thoughts flow. It’s essential to keep things positive by:

  • Setting ground rules in advance
  • Focusing on the Hopes initially
  • Agreeing that key concerns be addressed through action planning

As a facilitator, it’s important to ensure everyone has a voice, and that you actively listen to what is NOT being said, as much as to what words are actually being spoken. There is always a delicate balance to achieve between acknowledging emotions, while maintaining professionalism and integrity.

Theming hopes and concerns

It’s essential to identify key themes. If there are too many themes I plot the impact and ease of addressing each theme in order to prioritise activity and timescales.

Action planning

Hopes and Concerns aired goes a long way towards dealing with resistance to change. However it’s essential to take action too.  There are various tools that help you create action plans, including Force Field Analysis.

Force Field Analysis


Force Field Analysis is a tool that has really helped me to deal with resistance to change. It looks at hopes and concerns as opposing forces working for and against change. It also helps people understand that fears are just the flipside of hope. And that it is possible to turn negatives into positives through addressing fears head-on.

I’ve used Force Field analysis to improve straightforward situations, however it also works well when the problem is complex. I am increasingly using it to support Transformational and Digital projects. See here for more detail and images of the tool by the originator, Kurt Lewin.

Top tips

My top tips for using this tool in a workshop or in the workplace are:

  • Use Hopes and Concerns exercise to get started
  • Turn these into the Fors and Againsts, lining them up if they cancel each other out
  • Provide 4-5 prompts to encourage fuller discussion. For example: Fors and againsts within the organisation; the team; or personally
  • Carefully consider all outputs, respecting all opinions
  • Theme and prioritise the Fors and Againsts.
  • develop actions that will help resolve the Againsts
  • Ensure that you use the Fors to strengthen pace and  progress of the plan

Action planning

Sometimes the initial actions may just be ‘to carry out further research’. It’s not always possible, or even desirable to go straight to solution mode at this stage. The most important aspect is to acknowledge people’s resistance to change.

So, Part 2 of this blog describes how simple tools can be used to deal with resistance to change. I’ve described Hopes and Concerns, also Force Field Analysis. Part 3 will describe my personal toolkit and how I’ve learnt to facilitate leaders and teams who are resistant to change.

Further guidance

Here is a short slideshow explaining how the two tools can be used together to deal with resistance to change. This works very well, as it takes people through several steps on their change journey, so it is harder to turn back!

How to deal with resistance to change: part 3


How to deal with resistance to change: part 3

Part 1 described some of the signs and reasons for resistance to change. Part 2 outlined the tools I’ve used to deal with resistance. These include Hopes and Concerns, also Force Field analysis.

Part 3 is a little different as it describes my personal toolkit – which I use to help me identify and deal with the issues in the room. These aren’t tools I would necessarily teach to the group I’m working with.

The three tools I describe in Part 3 are the 4Ps of Resistance, the Change Equation and the Change Curve.

The 4Ps of Resistance to Change

One tool I’ve found helpful for dealing with resistance to change is the 4Ps. This tool helps me to categorise people according to their enthusiasm for change. (Note – there are other tools called 4Ps).

Participant. This attendee is enthusiastic, wants to learn, and is fully engaged with the process. I often select such a person to co-facilitate with me.

Passenger. This person is in the room – just about. While they won’t disrupt the session, neither will they play an active role. They may treat the session as a welcome distraction from the day job, or as an irrelevance.

Protester. This attendee makes it clear they don’t want to be there. They will often disagree with everything, making the atmosphere unpleasant for everyone. The session is an unwelcome intrusion into their heavy workload or their personal problems.

Prisoner. Like Passengers, they are resigned to being there but, Unlike the Protester, however, they are not confrontational. Instead, their behaviour and body language speak volumes.

I’ve found that by working out the group dynamics in this way, I can understand, and therefore empathise with each attendee. While I would not routinely share my analysis of their behaviour, I would use it to pair people up and role model alternative behaviours. As far as possible, I would ignore any peculiarities, treat everyone in the same way, as intelligent, human beings. I find this often takes the wind out of their sails.

Here’s a more detailed description of the 4Ps by Mind Tools.

The Change Equation

I use The Change Equation to analyse how readily people will accept the need for change. Richard Beckhard and David Gleicher identified three factors that must outweigh resistance when added together, in order to introduce successful change.

The equation is D X V X F > R

R is resistance to change.

D = Dissatisfaction with the status quo. Continuing things as they are is not an option

V = a Vision, or at least a sense of what is possible in the future.

F = First practical steps that can be taken towards the vision. These steps are concrete and acceptable.

So, whenever I’m facilitating change or transformation in an organisation, I use this tool as a checklist. I assess:

  • What is the level of dissatisfaction with the current system?
  • Are people committed to the planned changes?
  • Do they understand what actions they will be asked to take in the shorter term?

If any of these factors aren’t present, resistance is likely to be high. It can be addressed by addressing the missing elements:

  • Explaining why things can’t continue as they are
  • Developing or communicating the strategic vision
  • Translating the vision into a set of practical actions that everyone can get involved in.

The Change Curve

Developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in 1969, the Change Curve was initially used to support people through recognisable stages of bereavement. However, it’s now recognised that the change curve applis equally to wider business change and personal change.

Although I have used this tool to directly support people going through experiencing conflict or change, it’s more effective overall for me to apply the learning in my events or workshops.

There are several stages to introducing Change, and people experience different reactions at each stage. The stages of change and corresponding reactions broadly follow this pattern

As a facilitator, this helps me to understand for example:

  • where the group is on the change curve
  • where individuals are on the curve
  • who can be paired up for mutual support
  • who needs additional attention
  • who can potentially support others through the changes

This knowledge helps me to manage emotions, flatten the curve out, and get people through change more smoothly.

The change curve is widely used, and there is extensive information available on line. I’ve linked an article by Mind Tools above.

So, in the final part of this blog about dealing with resistance to change,  I’ve described the 4Ps, the Change Equation and the Change Curve which support my work as a facilitator. In earlier parts, I described the reasons and signs of resistance. And I summarised some tools I introduce people to, including Hopes and Concerns, and Force Field Analysis.

Grenfell Tower

Somehow blogging and business has paled into the background over the past week. When I initially started this three part post about dealing with change, I was unaware that my concluding section would coincide with the tragic events of Grenfell Tower, London. The pain of the injured victims, bereaved families and close-knit community is unimaginable. Via  extensive media coverage, we have witnessed widespread reactions from people who are traumatised by extreme change.

Their reactions are the manifestation to the stages of Change that Kubler Ross identified. The community has been engulfed in feelings of . disbelief, shock, anger, and fear. Appropriate support will smooth the stages and reactions. This could include a mix of leadership, counselling, empathy, respect, honesty and accountability. I truly hope the community’s severe emotional stress is recognised, understood and addressed in the very best ways possible.

About Lose the Box

Maureen Whyman is the owner of Lose the Box, a Business Improvement consultancy based in the East Midlands. Lose the Box, Nottingham blends simple science with creative facilitation, getting leaders, managers and teams to deal with change and work more productively together. Their unique approach achieves long-lasting improvement, strengthening well-being, skills, and processes for their clients. See testimonials here.

Please contact us on 07824 660 120 or for a no-obligation discussion if you think we could be of assistance. 

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook @losethebox.

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