The Human Side of Change

by | May 22, 2013 | Change |

Last night, I was going through some old papers in my flat and came across the article “Managing the Human Side of Change” by Rosabeth Moss Kanter written back in 1985.  I was struck by its opening line, “This is a time of historically unprecedented change for most corporations.”  Unprecedented change in 1985?  Really?  It seems to me that every year someone writes an article with such a line in it, every year feels like organisations are needing to deal with unprecedented change and the pace of this change is only ramping up.

Anyways, while I found the first line humourous, it also hooked me so I ignored what I was supposed to be doing and sat on the floor reading the article.  Kanter links change to a reduction in organisational effectiveness as small “routine” change can cause disruptions for staff which manifest in different ways from stress to foot-dragging to the extreme of sabotage.   While people’s resistance to change manifests itself in different ways, it is important to understand the reason behind the resistance to be able to address the resistance.  Kanter outlines 10 of the most common reasons people resist change.

  1. Loss of Control – Most people need or want to feel in control of their everyday world, so they tend to resist change when they feel it is being done to or imposed on them as they tend to feel threatened by it, rather than excited by it.
  2. Excess Uncertainty – This is different from the uncertainty involved with loss of control. Here Kanter is referring to “it’s safer to stay with the devil you know than to commit to the devil you don’t know.”  People often resist because they don’t know how the next step will feel or be.  This is often due to not enough communication or expecting staff to make too big of a leap at once.
  3. Surprise – Many people hate surprises.  Decisions made without their input or without some basic preparation can come as a shock to staff resulting in resistance as they have not had time to prepare themselves mentally or emotionally.  “Decisions for change can be such a shock that there is no time to assimilate or absorb them, or see what might be good about those changes.  All we can do is feel threatened and resist – defend against the new way or undermine it.”
  4. Things are Different – Thinking differently or behaving differently requires energy and effort, regardless of how big or small the change is.  People resist change because we tend to be creatures of habit and change requires us to become conscious of and to question our familiar routines and habits.
  5. Loss of Face – if the change is presented in a manner that communicates the “old” way was wrong or bad, then accepting the change can be viewed as admitting I was wrong, which can be experienced as embarrassing or as losing face in front of our peers.  Most of us find difficult.
  6. Concerns about Future Competence – Do I have what is takes to perform in the new way? Do I have the needed skills? Articulated or not, most people will ask themselves these types of questions during the change process.
  7. Ripple Effects – Change in one area of our lives or of our job impacts other areas.  Resistance to change can be due to its impact on another area of a staff person’s life.
  8. More Work – Change requires more energy, more time, and greater mental preoccupation – it simply is more work.
  9. Past Resentments – Unresolved grievances from the past can rise up and snare a change process.
  10. Sometimes the threat posed by the change is a real one – Sometimes change does create winners and losers.  Sometimes people do lose status, clout, or comfort because of the change – knowing this sooner rather than later is best.

Sitting on my floor reading this, I realised that while the article was written in 1985, it’s doubtful the reasons for resistance have themselves changed much.  Most projects have an element of change integrated in them – they may be viewed as a technology project because technology has a significant role in it; but it is also and perhaps primarily an organisational change project.


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