Rethinking Resistance

Emergent Organizational Development and Emergent Change® is a registered trademark, 2017. All writings are considered under copyright as per The Institute For Emergent Organizational Development and Emergent Change®, Patrick Trottier and Associates. Written permission is required.

By Patrick Trottier

Do we need to rethink ‘resistance’ in facilitating organizational or cultural change and refocus on the process of change and development instead?

Some say that ‘resistance’ is a natural state in any significant change process and there may be very valid reasons for such resistance to occur.

Tom Peters, “Liberation Management” (1994) argues that change is actually normal and that people do it all the time –it is the process of change that we need to pay attention to.

In my experience, I tend to agree with such a perspective. Think about this – people change their clothes, change their hair styles, their cars, their TV programs, their vacation spots, what they eat, what they read… etc., etc. all the time. It natural when given a choice and it makes sense, and they have the right degree of input and control of the situation.

“Change is natural under the right conditions.”

Anchoring A Notion 

The original “Formula For Change” as created by David Gleicher (Gleicher’s Formula), and as published by Beckhard and Harris (1969), was stated as:

C = (ABD) > X, where C is change, A is the status quo dissatisfaction, B is a desired clear state, D is practical steps to the desired state, and X is the cost of the change.

Kathleen Dannemiller (1992) has been noted for altering the original formula and simplifying it. It became simply:

Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps > Resistance to Change

D = Dissatisfaction with how things are now; V = Vision of what is possible; FS = First, concrete steps that can be taken towards the vision; If the product of these three factors is greater than R (Resistance) then ‘change’ would occur.

Dannemiller and Jacobs first published this version of the Gleicher’s Formula in 1992 (and Jacobs, 1994).

This redesigned version of the original caught on and the focus and notion on ‘resistance’ began.

Did something get radically changed from the original formula in the translation?

I think so, and so did the focus. ‘Resistance’ seems to have become the challenge and the ‘problem’ of almost every ‘change initiative’ since.

Around the mid 90s I did notice how many consultants and managers started carrying this mantra and began isolating the ‘resistors’ into ‘camps’ not giving them the time of day and were actually judging and looking at them as a ’problem’ – and thus, treated them as a problem.

The ‘resistance’ formula eventually became a ‘group think’. Some individuals and groups became ‘the strengths’ of the organization and then there were ‘the resistors’ – seems like managers and consultants were actually reinforcing ‘those vs them’ thinking, and maybe even generating a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

There definitely was a shift in focus from ‘practical steps to the desired state’ onto ‘resistance’.

It is all neat, simple, clear, orderly and understandable.

It seems like most people’s mental and change models became entrenched
in the concept of ‘resistance’ which still lasts to this day

Maybe we need to rethink things.

As I was working with people during the 90s, there were certainly some people that sat in on those ‘fire side ‘chats with management and upper level leaders of the organization, but they just did not ‘come on side’, or ‘buy-in’, as some have termed. Why?

Not sure at the time, but I believed they had their reasons – and I believed their reasons were valid to them. They simply choose not to be ‘on-board’, some even called ‘bullshit’ about the whole thing – and that was OK with me.

Why was it OK with me? Because I respected their ‘choice’, I accepted them just the way they were – no judgments, no labels. I believed then, and still do, that ‘acceptance’ opens doors for engagement (vs. isolation and fragmentation).

Over the years, I learned many lessons from such folks which helped me achieve a better understanding of the process of change and development. I had a number of opportunities to have some friendly, non-judgmental, informal ‘chats’ with the so-called ‘resistors’. After some trust was established, they seemed very willing to open up, and they made sense – this is where I started to understand some of the dynamics of ‘change and resistance’.

Some Sharings:

From talking to the so-called ‘resistors’, I learned that many of them had been in their organizations for a good amount of time and have seen it all before – and nothing really changed day-to-day. The term “Flavor of the month” was used more than once. They had come ‘on board’ before with great hopes on previous efforts and nothing really happened. I thought this was an important message to listen to. These folks weren’t fools – why sign up for something that will just fade away after awhile. They had real work to do. It seemed like ‘what they experienced’ in their normal day-to-day work world was critical to the notion of ‘change’ itself.

Another dynamic that was happening was that these people were use to an ‘unhealthy work climate’ and they learned to survive in such – so ‘survival’ behaviours protected them from anything they did not trust. Such survival attitudes and behaviours became their consistent ‘method of operating’. They were on automatic and they just did not want to let go of their effective survival behaviours in the face of uncertainty – who could blame them. With all this new ‘change hoopla’, with its new words and promises, were they really ready to give up what protected their survival in the past?’ (goes to the concepts of; ‘ownership’ and ‘readiness’…)

Others mentioned that if no one was listening to them and their ideas before – why would anyone really listen to them now? BUT NOW that some manager, or some influential consultant, comes up with same ideas as they have had all along, NOW it is a big deal. What is the real message to them in this case – you are not important… they felt some resentment to such.

Some said if a person did not have a ‘different experience’ in the actual process of the change initiative that they had in their normal work climate and management practices that needed changing – their conclusions were “no difference’ – it is just another BS thing.”

Other people wanted to keep ‘control’ of the status-quo because they perceived the advantage of any change was less than the ‘status’ they currently carried.

Some said that if they were labelled and treated as ‘resistors’, then they must be such – and might as well have some fun with it to get through the work day.

A few people who ‘resisted’ became the ‘hero’ to some of their peers and got ‘kudos’ for such – when I asked people about that, the general answer was – any recognition is sometimes better than no recognition.

Some people who ‘resisted’ felt somewhat powerful in their stance not to engage – a result of feeling powerless in the formal organization.

One person who resisted actually stated to me that he found power in being a ‘victim’ and quickly learned  to use HR policies in that role.

There are all kinds of people and all kinds of reasons.

All these comments certainly made sense to me and I told them so – I accepted their comments and ideas, and by doing so, I validated them and accepted them from where they were, and from that foundation they choose to ‘open up, start to trust and to share’ So I engaged them on their own terms. Just remember, acceptance and validation does not necessarily mean to agree with.

What Did They Really Want?

At the same time, it seemed most such ‘labelled’ people were actually ‘craving change’ – real change – in the right way, at the right time where they had some control of it, and they could ‘trust’ the people who were leading the organization.


Just look at all the things they cared about, as stated by such folks over the years of feedback:

– that the change efforts are real –and not the ‘flavor of the month’, or, will be dropped when a new sr. manager shows up.
– that there is good stuff in it for them and their friends at work.
– that it makes both business and personal sense.
– that they (and others) are ‘accepted’ and are really listened to.
– that they count and are appreciated.
– that their time is not wasted by another ‘here we go again’ special change initiative (they have their real work to do).
– that they do not look like fools by ‘buying-into’ some pseudo change effort that is a new sr. manager’s ‘pet project’.
– that they have a choice when they are ready to make that choice.
– that they can have a degree of control over the change, their lives and have ‘influence’ regarding their work world.
– that they will be treated with the respect that people are entitled to.
– that they are acknowledged and accepted for who they are, where they are and what they think.
– that they are as important as management is and it is time to break down the barriers – and become people, not ‘positions’.
– that they do not want things done to them, they want to do them.
– that they are not judged.
– that this ‘change and development’ thing is lead by their bosses not by some high ego-driven, knows better-than-you consultant that call themselves ‘change agents’.
– that they see themselves as the ‘change agents’… and need to be recognized as such.

All this makes sense to me. These ‘caring comments’ are all based on my experiences with my clients through the years. I want to acknowledge those that decided to begin to trust and to share their thoughts.

More food for thought.

Trust. People do not resist change – people just carry on with that which has given them some bit of control in their lives especially when they do not trust the words and the efforts of change – they just feel they will not gain but will loose something that they have built up over time -even if it not the best of situations that they have learned to live with. “If I have a good reason not to trust you before, why now?”

Effective engagement. People do not want ‘change’ done TO THEM …people want TO BE A PART OF REAL CHANGE and not some fly-by-night program or ‘overnight change initiative’…

Real change as ‘experienced’ in how we work together day-to-day. Concrete experiences that matter to people and are meaningful to them.

Security: People will ‘test’ the change, just as you would ‘test’ how hot the water is if you had been burned before. People have other life ‘investments’ such as kids and mortgages -changes in their work status impacts these things.

Listen and learn. STOP ‘putting focus on overcoming resistance to change” and start understanding it, listen to it, validate it and appreciate it.

How change occurs. START putting focus on HOW change is presented and how people are engaged in and are a part of leading the change process.

I matter. People seem to want to be heard and recognized in an authentic way that has meaning to them.

Caring. The most fervent ‘criticizers’ may be the ones who care the most and want an avenue to voice such. People also want to know that others really care about them and about their well being.

Acceptance. Accept people for who they are and where they are – and don’t label them…

Readiness. Who knows when YOU are ready for change and who makes that choice? You do – period. What creates ‘readiness’? Learn about how to create such and integrate such into the design process to support people in ways that matter to them.

Ownership. Buy-in is not enough -people do not want to be sold something, they want to be part of the creation of it. (see: )

Validation. Actually validate the so-called resistance and accept it as part of the natural flow of change and development –listen and learn lessons from their experiences and stories.

Integration. With differences there can be ‘winners and loosers’, there can be ‘compromise’ (loose / loose) and there can be ‘integration’ (creation of something new with everyone moving forward).

Authenticity. From the Gestalt Paradoxical Theory of Change – “Change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.”

Basic Learnings

Eventually, I learned that it was not the pretty chats with management, nor the pretty words in the nice frames on the wall, nor the business case (drivers) presented that changed their minds.

What makes a difference is the ‘concrete experiences’ people have in their day-to-day world over time that tell them something is different… and of course, having enough time for trust to develop and having the support to make a choice for the changes to be internalized.

Do we need to think different about this whole concept of ‘resistance’?

I think so. You see ‘change’ is natural to people, but it has to make sense and the approach needs to make sense – because people do care. People just like change to be real and not a manipulated event that sounds good, or, to be tried and dropped as soon as some hurdles are met, or as new management comes into the organization.

How do I know this stuff? My clients taught me so…

On An Organizational Level – Why Do Organizations Get Stuck.

Organizations ‘get stuck’ not because they ‘resist change’, it is because they cannot change.

As a simple analogy, take a person who has lost both their legs. They do not resist walking, they want to walk, but they cannot walk.
Why? It is because the ‘current form’ of their body does not constitute the ability to  walk.

Organizations that ‘cannot walk’ are ‘closed systems’ unable to emerge and evolve with their changing external and internal environments. The design of the organization does not constitute the ability to walk (change).

Organizations that can walk are designed to be ‘open systems’ and their design allows the organization to emerge and evolve with their internal and external environments.

Organization’s Sustainability (a short note)

BEing an ‘open organizational system design’, or a ‘closed organizational system design’ goes directly to the concepts of ‘sustainability’.

Which organizational design do you think facilitates ‘sustainability’?

Concluding Thoughts

On an individual / group level my experiences since the 90s is the same as Tom Peters, “Liberation Management” (1994) who argues that change is actually normal and that people do it all the time –it is the process of change that we need to pay attention to.

Maybe people/groups are not responding as one predicted, it may be time to start listening and learning rather than ‘labelling’ people. Use such ‘learnings’ to work together to continuously emerge a ‘process and an approach’ that develops ‘ownership’, ‘readiness’, ‘effective engagement’ and a shift in emotional and cognitive reframing.

Maybe those that focus and use the term ‘resistance’ are to some degree and in some way;

a. Creating a ‘label’ or a ‘group’ seen as ‘resistors’ and another group that is seen as ‘strengths’, thus creating somewhat of a ‘we-they’ notion.

b. Creating a ‘self-fulling prophecy’  just as a grade school teacher, who believes his/her students won’t amount to anything in a poor inner-city school, may reinforce just that notion within the students themselves…

On an ‘organizational level, pay attention to the ‘design’ of the organization. Is it an ‘open system design’, or a ‘closed system’ design. Can the design of the organization actually facilitate change or inhibit change to the point where the organization actually cannot change within the structure, and prescribed boundaries of the organization.

Here are some resources that are interesting and may offer some new insights for some:

Stop Blaming Resistance to Change and Start Using It

How to Deal With Resistance to Change

I hope you have gotten something out of this write-up.


About Patrick A. Trottier

I am a 30 plus year applied Organizational Development practitioner having honed my craft in the U.S., Canada and internationally. Presently living in beautiful Vancouver, B.C., I am currently developing the next evolution of O.D. termed; 'Emergent Organizational Development and Emergent Change® (EODC)®, and focusing on Emergent OD®, Emergent Change® and the development of Emergent Organizations® within my professional practice.
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8 Responses to Rethinking Resistance

  1. Khadija Mohsin says:

    We always need rethinking.. refocusing ..reorganizing .. to develop a great acceptable CHANGE
    Khadija.Mohsin – UAE – Dubai

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi ايمان محمد حامد
    Yes, “Change is the basis of everything’. And yes, many do not understand the dynamics of ‘change’. It is how ‘change’ is seen and how it is approached. Without ’emergent change’ nothing would exist.

    “Emergent change is universal, infinite, and the essence of creation.” (Patrick A. Trottier, 1995)

  3. ايمان محمد حامد says:

    مقاومة التغير بعض الاشخاص يعتقدون ان مرحله التغير صعبه لذا لابد من التفكير مافي صعوبه في التغير التغير جدد كل الافكار والنشاطات وجعل المكتبة في صوره جيد اذن لابد من التغير

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