Why do Stakeholders Resist Change?

I guess some of my readers are thinking that this is like asking why day follow night, but recent research is digging deeper into the underlying causes.

For many years, I have used my Onion Model of Resistance to help me and my clients understand the different ways people resist change, and how project and change managers can deal with it. The six levels of resistance are like the layers of an onion: each one closer to the psychological heart of the problem, and each one being a little hotter and harder to handle.

But in research The Influence Agenda, I discovered some fascinating research that led me to a deeper understanding of one of those six layers of resistance, when people are saying, effectively: ‘I don’t like change’.

The work of Shaul Oreg at Cornell University found, unsurprisingly, that some people are more resistant to change than others. But he also found four factors that reliably predict how much resistance a person will show towards a change.

Stakeholders are likely to be more resistant when they have:

  1. A preference for routine and familiar things
  2. A preference for sticking to a plan, once it is made
  3. A tendency to get stressed by changes in plan
  4. A discomfort with changing their mind

This leads me to identify four separate versions of the ‘I don’t like change response, each of which you can, as a change agent engaging with your stakeholders, respond to in a different way.

  1. ‘I don’t like a break in routine’

Focus not on the old routine ending, but on the emergence of new routines as a transition towards a new form of stability.

  1. ‘I feel uncomfortable with sudden changes’

Long lead times and careful planning will make even a sudden change feel familiar by the time it happens.

  1. ‘I get stressed at the thought of change’

The stress response arises from feelings of not being in control. Find ways to involve the resistant stakeholder in the change process, to give them a real and meaningful sense of control.

  1. ‘Once I have made up my mind, I like to stick to it’

This ‘cognitive rigidity’ means that you should present change as being, as far as possible, consistent or a minor deviation from a pre-existing choice. The less you present it needing a discontinuous change of opinion, the better.

Of all of the disciplines a project manager needs to master, handling resistance in a positive manner is, perhaps, the hardest. It is certainly the one that the people I speak to and train fear the most. Yet, like all things, with study comes understanding and, from understanding, flow concrete techniques.


This article was first published on the APM (Association for Project Management) website on 25 November, 2014.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan – www.theinfluenceagenda.co.uk

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton

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