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Why People Resist Change

Posted on 15 July 2020

You can tell folks to change, but making it happen is something else

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” Leaders should know by now that people tend to resist change when it’s forced on them. “Telling” is what initiates the resistance. It causes those being told to spend their energy mostly on NOT doing what you’ve told them. Yet that resistance is not so much about the change; it’s all about being changed.

What’s the most common process for introducing change in our organizations? We hold a meeting. Tell people why the change is necessary and give our reasons for the change, the expected benefits and tell them be prepared to do it our way. Then, we become angry and frustrated as all heck when we experience their subsequent resistance and lack of buy-in. Usually, little or no change happens in the long run.

These differences in perspective, from ‘creative’ and ‘positive’ to ‘reactive’ and negative, create conflict when used in a ‘telling’ situation. It’s very hard for workers to trust in the “you are our most valuable asset” mantra while being told what to do, when to do it, how, and what result is demanded. The leaders’, managers’ or supervisors’ intentions are well-meaning. It’s the ‘telling’ part that causes overt, subtle or silent resistance.

There’s a mental gap between those in charge and those they lead

In just about every employee survey that asks employee what’s important to them at work, in the top five responses we find: (1) acknowledgement, recognition and appreciation; (2) being involved in decisions that affect them; and (3) support with personal issues. Yet the gap between what employees want and what management thinks employees want never seems to narrow.

The problem is that leaders, the initiators of change, approach change from a different mindset than the folks being told to change. Managers and supervisors see change as a proactive, ‘creative’ process that they have initiated. Those who are told to change see it mostly from a ‘reactive’ mindset — as an event that will probably end up hurting them in some way.

When employees are treated as functions and roles — when they feel management doesn’t care about their needs and wants and they are never asked, “What do you think?” — energy begins to evaporate. Performance, productivity, engagement and commitment wane. Attitudes turn negative and the ‘us vs. them’ mindset takes over.

If those in charge take a ‘telling’ approach towards change, in essence they are saying to employees: “We really don’t appreciate you; we really don’t want to include you. You have to change, like it or not.” That’s the perception and we all know perception is reality — especially in workplace situations when change is the issue.

Engagement as an alternative

The real experts in the organization are the employees. There is a great deal of value and potential in the folks who report to you on a daily basis. They usually possess an unrivaled
knowledge, insight and expertise in how to make things happen.

If you would take the time — and be honest and sincere in your efforts — you could ask people for ideas and be assured they will come up with most of the solutions required for them to do their best, both for themselves and for the good of their team and organization. Asking employees improves their self-esteem, motivates them, and empowers them. They take ownership for finding solutions and making change. Asking communicates: “I value you as a person. Your opinion is important to me/us/the team/the organization.”

What would it be like if leaders engaged employees in the change process by inviting them to join in the decision-making and problem-solving leading up to the change? In many
cases, employees will come up with the same solutions or change efforts that the bosses are suggesting. The difference will be the greater sense of self-esteem and interest that comes because they feel they are part of the process. Commitment and buy-in usually follow closely behind. There is much less tension, conflict and resistance.

If you want folks to use their innate talents, wisdom and knowledge — to be creative, engaged, committed and proactive — ask, don’t tell.

Here are some questions for self-reflection:

  • How do you feel when you are told what to do? What message do you hear when you are told and not asked?
  • Can you think of a time when you had a good idea, an effective solution, and no one listened to you? How did that make you feel? What happened to your enthusiasm?
  • In your role as a leader, manager or supervisor what solution have you recently tried to implement by telling? How did folks react? How well did they implement the change? How effective was the process? What was your contribution to its success or lack of it?
  • Are you a “tell” or “ask” type of leader, manager or supervisor? Why?
  • Can you remember the last time you resisted a change effort? Why did you do that?

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This post was written by:

Peter Vajda - who has written 42 posts on Slow Leadership.

Peter Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a founding partner of SpiritHeart, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching and counseling. With a practice based on the dynamic intersection of mind, body, emotion and spirit, Peter’s 'whole person' coaching approach supports deep and sustainable change and transformation. Peter facilitates and guides leaders and managers, individuals in their personal and work life, partners and couples, groups and teams to move to new levels of self-awareness, enhancing their ability to show up authentically and with a heightened sense of well be-ing, inner harmony and interpersonal effectiveness as they live their lives at work, at home, at play and in relationship. Peter is a professional speaker and published author. For more information: , or [email protected] , or phone 770.804.9125.

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14 Comments For This Post

  1. Frode H says:

    I am an asker, I hope..

    “What would it be like if leaders engaged employees in the change process by inviting them to join in the decision-making and problem-solving leading up to the change? In many cases, employees will come up with the same solutions or change efforts that the bosses are suggesting. ” - I have at least had positive experience with this. Almost everytime I have done this, the result are just as I wanted or better.

    If I need to tell, I always start with: “We got a challenge!” - And that is a key word as I have prepared them to take on all possible challenges, no matter what. And they keep on amazing

    My advice; Try it out, you will see that the results are often better then your own ideas.

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Frode. My experience fits absolutely with yours.

    Keep reading my friend.

  3. Martin Wildam says:

    I do not agree that in many cases the solution will be the same if you ask the others. Employees often do know a lot more important details. Managers often do not have the time or interest dealing with details. But there can be important details that can either turn out to be show stoppers during implementation. That are those small facts that are often not taken into consideration while looking to “big pictures”.

    I agree more to Frode who comments that results are often better when asking the others for their ideas. Involving employees is important to get a concrete implementation of a solution. Managers often are trying to implement solutions on problems that have never been viewed from the actual implementation level.

    A manager should be more the coach, keep the overview and be a conductor. Further I don’t think that employees are expecting from their managers to know the right answer to all challenges - they can’t know. On the other hand employees can’t have the complete overview. Managers and employees should sum up and share information to lead to good solutions. It must be a together!

  4. Bill Nelson says:

    Engagement through involvement is a concept that continues to bring with it the opportunity for the uilisation of combined skill, experience and insight. The reality is that it would be a very smart operator that can come up with time and time again with a series of answers that surpasses the combined intellect, insight and understanding of an entire team.

    However I think there is another consideration in this and that is the team must pay for the opportunity to have invlovement. The currency they use to pay for this expereince of involvement is discipline. Discipline to do the things that they decide upon that will take them to the heights to which they aspire or are encouraged/directed.

  5. peter vajda says:

    I agree with you, Frode. For me, the pivotal and most effective question that engages folks and supports them to want to be involved is, “What do you think?” asked early and often.

  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    Martin, Bill and Peter

    Thank you all for your excellent comments. I think the essence of what I wrote is in line with what you each say, but your additions and clarifications definitely add a great deal.

    The trouble with an attitude of “the boss knows best” is that it assumes infallibility for the boss. That is both nonsense and dangerous. However, I believe we also need to guard against going to the opposite extreme and assuming a similar infallibility for the collective ideas of the group.

    The truth is surely that we all make mistakes. What asking people for their ideas does best is keep our minds open to the possibility of being wrong, and the opportunity, therefore, to correct our actions at any time.

    Keep reading, my friends.

  7. peter vajda says:

    Martin, the manager as coach dynamic rings true with me and in my experienece is often the difference, catalyst, between employees who are engaged and those who are not…as collaborators, not infallible, sole sources of solutions.

    Bill, the notion of discipline is well taken…if and when folks make suggestions, they should include the how, when…etc. and engage in implementation if it is appropriate…calling for the intentionality and discipline you suggest.

  8. Martin Wildam says:

    Discipline is a good word coming up here - and while looking what can reduce the discipline in the daily work I come to changed priorities as I often face changed priorities. Although I think I have enough discipline to finish my commitments delays come from priority changes from “outside” my field of responsibility.

    I can also see that discussing too long with everybody can reduce the overall productivity and it never comes to action.

    As mentioned in your last new blog post ( I guess there is also no general right answer here. Involving others can either be poor or also be exaggerated in time and people involved.

  9. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Martin.

    I agree about the problem of people from ‘outside’, usually the boss or the next boss above, who constantly change priorities. This is most often a result of short-term or inadequate thinking. The boss is either trying to respond to every breath of wind as it passes by, or never gives him or herself enough time to think a situation through fully. The result, in either case, is constant ‘correction’ that shifts priorities and causes delays and confusion.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  10. Gibbo says:

    Great post Peter, it has given me a clearer focus on some important aspects of successful change management.

    Something that I have noticed in my own recent experience, is that those managers and specialists who have the responsibility of implementing a program of change can tend to see every response that does not look like total and utter acquiescence as a ‘reaction to change’ and reject it out of hand.

    If someone is asking questions, are they negatively reacting to change or are they seeking to understand?

    If someone is presenting suggestions to improve what is being implemented, are they nitpicking or are they making a serious constructive effort to assist in making the changes sustainable?

    Has someone presented reasons why aspects of the change program will not work or are maybe not sustainable? It is possible that this individual has just rejected the change out of hand. It is also possible that they are actually on to something that will improve what you are trying to do.

    Like you say Peter, ‘the real experts are the employees’ and it will benefit any of us who are managers to remember.

  11. peter vajda says:

    Hi, Gibbo,

    I’m glad some of the reading resonated with and can support you in your work. What I have found is many of the managers you speak of who are resistant to others’ critiques or questions that aren’t in lock-step with their (the managers’) perspective are often uncomfortable in their own skin for one reason or another. Further self-reflection and coaching can perhaps help them to see why this is so.

    Too, as you suggest, Gibbo, it is important to discern the nature of one’s response to change – curious, seriously supportive and helpful, naivety, defensive and reactive, numb, etc. The nature of one’s response can perhaps support the managers to see deeper into the respondent’s “motive” for the response and then encourage the supportive ones to become more engaged in the change process and perhaps work to coach the reactive and non-supportive folks to inquire more deeply into the reasons, or excuses for their lack of support.

    I agree with you that the front-line folks are the “experts” so to speak and can offer significant contributions to calls for change.

  12. Andrew Meyer says:


    thanks for an excellent post. You have some excellent ideas, but I think it misses one of the reasons people resist change. The change doesn’t benefit them. The company may have to make it, but that doesn’t mean the people will execute it. That is the thesis of my blog entry.

    I am interested in your thoughts.


  13. peter vajda says:

    I agree with your thesis, Andy. Perhaps the following might be of help, or might not.

    Managers cannot control an employee’s response to change. Employees choose how they will react or respond and life is about choices.

    Yes, employees are and should be concerned with a “what’s in it for me” perspective. However, for me, what’s underneath their “what’s in it for me” perspective, and how that affects their input into the decision-making process is what matters.

    Until and unless they come to the table and are asked to voice their concerns, their personal context for wanting or refusing change, managers have no idea of what underlies their input (their reactions and responses).

    It’s here in inviting employees into the decision-making process that one can understand their resistance.

    Generally there are three groups who respond to change and who have a personal “what’s in it for me?” perspective: those who are willing and open to change, those who are initially hesitant and reluctant and those who are adamant about not changing.

    The employee’s involvement and engagement in the decision-making process supports managers to understand who the advocates are, who needs true and real support to understand and be OK with the change and those who should probably move to another unit, department or company as they cannot abide by the change.

    Inviting employees into the decision-making process and listening to them, allows the manager to get to and diagnose root causes and then take whatever appropriate actions are required. Then and there the elephants are usually “outed’ for the benefit of the team/group or organization.

  14. Simon Asare says:

    Hi Andy,

    In my side of the World, especially in the Public Service, one’s desire to implement agreed upon strategy for change mostly result in the change of the supposed change agent to succumb to the prevailing circumstance.

    It is indisputable truism that one should question the status quo and plan and implement the required change for the betterment of mankind in every situation. However, if the situation is so bad that nothing could be done about it, then one must cope and if coping is practically impossibly, then he/she should quit. This is my experience and principle on change.

    Your comment please.

    Simon Asare,

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