Whose resistance is it anyway?

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Whose resistance is it anyway?

There are perhaps few terms in management science so universally recognized as the term “resistance to change”.


Its popular usage refers to the idea that employees prefer status quo, and when any change is introduced by the leadership, this will be resisted (unfairly) by several employees in the system.


This idea of leaders pushing through change and employees resisting change has in fact become so universally accepted, that leading change and resistance to change get most often spoken of in the same breath.


When the idea of “resistance to change” was first introduced by Kurt Lewin in 1947, however it had a very different meaning…one that has since been lost.


Lewin’s original idea was part of his “Force Field Theory of Organizational Change”. Here he looked at status quo in an organization being held in place by an invisible force-field. This force-field comprised of forces holding the system in place and other forces attempting to bring change.


Any change required an unfreezing of the force-field, the subsequent change, and then a re-freezing, or the establishment of a “new status quo” where the new sets of behaviors could thrive. His ideas around change drew from both an understanding of homeostasis (tendency towards equilibrium) in biological systems and force fields within Physics.


Thus the “resistance to change” Lewin spoke about was not primarily about people resisting change. Instead it was about systems resisting change.



The original meaning of the word however soon got lost. Just a year after Lewin published his work, Coch and French (1948) wrote about the implementation of change within a manufacturing organization. Their paper was titled: “Overcoming resistance to change”.


They spoke about the importance of employee participation in discussions to build support for change.


Now Coch and French were both scholar practitioners. This means that while they were keen scholars they also worked with the Personnel department within the organization they wrote about.


Some speculate that this may have meant they were part of (or privy to) union negotiations required to enable the change. Perhaps the frustrations they witnessed, may have played a role in the way they used the term “resistance to change”.


Further, both were very influential people within a fast developing field of Organizational Behavior at the time. The imagery generated by the term—one of employees resisting change that leaders initiate, and their own professional influence, meant their ideas took root in the imagination of academics and practitioners alike.


Within a decade or so, several other writers spoke about their “tips for overcoming resistance to change”, and these writings referred to resistance experienced from employees. As each article built on previous ones, the meaning of the term was forever changed.


The resistance of the system to change—became the resistance of employees to change.


Does this matter? Many scholars seem to think this shift of meaning, has been very unfortunate. And I agree.


Our mental models guide how we think about anything. When the term “resistance to change” refers almost exclusively to the resistance of employees, it focuses the energy of change leaders towards dealing with recalcitrant employees rather than changing the force-field within the system.


And given that true, sustainable change is about change to many organizational factors, this focus is misleading and unhelpful.


It has been almost 70 years since the term “resistance to change” entered our popular imagination. Is it time to reclaim its original meaning?


(Dent and Goldberg in 1999 published a very detailed and interesting paper that traces the evolution of the term. You can read more about it here).