Managing Resistance to Change


– Chapter 3 –

To paraphrase Mike Tyson, having a plan is great until you get a punch in the face. Change management can sometimes feel like that.

Whoever it is, almost every organizational leader will need to learn how to manage resistance to change. It seems that at least one group of stakeholders are resisting the changes needed to survive in today’s competitive globalised markets.

In this section, I cover the major obstacles to change. By understanding what can go wrong, you can head them off before they happen and prepare when you see the signs things are starting to slip.


The biggest and most obvious cause of resistance is ambiguity. Ambiguity is unavoidable in projects, but it is controllable. Next, I’ll look at a case study of explaining how to tame ambiguity, why ambiguity causes people to stop and what to do about it.

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This story is about Medtronic, a medical device manufacturer. Well-known for its work with pacemaker implantation technology.

The CEO, Omar Ishrak, realised there was an opportunity for the company to expand into areas of India that were in dire need of cardiac health solutions. This strategy would fit in well with its need to innovate, look to emerging markets, and stave off competition from start-ups.

Seeking to make real change happen, Ishrak announced the intention to radically reduce the cost of a pacemaker. It was this announcement that brought the project a necessary degree of clarity.

Bringing focus to a situation like this is akin to seeing the lights of a big city on the horizon during a long drive. With your destination within reach, the journey seems less daunting. Likewise, giving specific targets on a to-do list helps to achieve its aims.

Think of an everyday example: “buy bread on the way home” versus “deal with the project”. The first to-do is specific and time-boxed. Such clarity gives focus and helps to take action.

Ambiguity aversion

The malaise that results from a lack of clarity is known to economists as “Ambiguity Aversion”. Behavioural economists have known for years that people are more likely to invest in bonds and deposits rather than stocks because of the perceived ambiguity of stock price volatility even though over time the stock market outperforms cash investments.

This is the difference between risk assessment when probabilities are known (e.g., 3.25% return on my savings), and unknown (e.g., over time I’ll get 11% return from stocks, but I have no idea about this year).

In organisational life, most of the decisions we face are a mix between risk and ambiguity.

This insight about ambiguity is why people treat ambiguous, inexact, incomplete, and vague information not just as insufficient, but actually discount the data altogether.

The frustrating implication for change managers is that as a result of the discounting of ambiguous information, people behave as if they have no information at all.

This is why bringing clarity to your organisational change programs is so important. It’s why a vague statement like “deal with this new project” results no action on the project. It is instead put off in favour of the customer call, the urgent task in the here and now.

Good change leaders must be skilled at converting the ambiguous goals and plans into concrete, specific steps. Add to this clear messages to ensure the behaviour change desired and you’re well on the way to successful change.

Take the mattress company, Sealy, for example. When it comes to breaking down ambiguous situations and implementing change, Sealy excels. The company took its change management process model to a new level. They faced the task of unveiling a new mattress to increase sales in the flagging economy of 2008.
Sealy did several things right.

First, they created a team with an express goal. Taking people from many departments, pulling them away from their day jobs so they could focus.

Second, Sealy threw out the traditional hierarchy that is usually present in these types of groups. People didn’t have to go through the typical chain of command to accomplish work. This streamlined the process and allowed a free flow of ideas and innovative new concepts.

This process for innovation also involved getting rid of typical limits. Notions such as keeping costs low or avoiding prototyping. The group was free to explore all options and access unlimited avenues for design.

At the end of the process, the product they turned out broke all previous sales records.

Breaking it down

This brings us back to Medtronic. Healthy Heart could not exist without the Medtronic catalyst Keyne Monson. The initial goal was the ambiguous goal of “increasing company presence in India”. Monson was able to break down and decompose the goals into individual parts.

He engaged bankers who were familiar with the type of lending a poorer country required. He drew in external help and engaged internal stakeholders by highlighting individual stories he was seeing.

The process included establishing pilot programs in Indian hospitals so that doctors could continue to use the technology long after the representatives of Medtronic had packed up and left. Since this process innovation in 2010, there have been about 50 pacemaker implantation surgeries completed. That’s 50 lives saved as a direct result of Medtronic’s approach to address this need.

Providing some clarity

Breaking it down As a change manager, look at the following areas of ambiguity. Make some plans to reduce or eliminate these issues to provide more clarity to your business.


  • Vague issues and problems
  • Unreliable data/conflicting information


  • Too many goals that compete with each other
  • Lack of clarity on how success will be measured
  • Not enough resources and time to properly tackle the goal


  • Unclear hierarchy
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities
  • Politicking and favouritism


  • Finger pointing; accusations and blame instead of cause
  • Key personnel changing too often
  • Cause and effect poorly understood

Beware the fundamental attribution error

When embarking on change, watch out for the fundamental attribution error to avoid inadvertently causing resistance in others. To understand what fundamental attribution error is, let’s turn to Edward Deming, the father of Total Quality Management (TQM) movement.

Deming said that almost all (96%) of errors are due to the system people find themselves in and not the people using that system

In his book, Out of the Crisis, Deming tells a story of a manager of a company that used combustible products in their product processes. Concerned there where too many fires, the manager sent a memo to his people telling them to be “more careful and light fewer fires or else.”

He may as well have said, “The beatings will stop when morale improves.”

This manager had fallen for the “fundamental attribution error”. He had mistaken the cause as his people as being careless, when in fact it was a systemic process issue. Attribution theory is concerned with the ways in which people explain (or attribute) the behaviour of others.

The fundamental attribution error is a particularly detrimental bias that prevents managers from affecting real change in their organisations.

When we’re trying to understand and explain what happens in organisational or social settings, we tend to explain behaviour by internal disposition. We focus personality traits, abilities, and motives as opposed to external situational factors.

It can be overcome by analysing the internal factors versus the external factors at play. For example, if an employee hasn’t delivered a project on time, the internal factors represent the personal behaviour that caused the delay. Whereas external factors reflect the general context of the situation.


  • Internal elements include personal effort, ability, mood, motivation, interest, control, stamina, and self-discipline.
  • External elements include poor managerial support, poor technology, red tape, unreliable colleagues, bad luck, the task itself, and/or unreasonable expectations.

To distinguish between the internal and external elements, ask yourself this question: “If I put a gun to their head, could they do it?”

If the answer is yes, and they aren’t doing it, then it’s likely an internal issue, which is best resolved with coaching. If the answer is no, then the issue is external and requires training, environmental, or system interventions.

In the case of Deming’s fireball manager, no amount of coaching would end the fires. People make mistakes in dangerous environments. This was an external issue that required solutions such as different products and better safety processes.

Your job as a change leader is to think through the external issues affecting change ahead of time. This way you can put in the supporting structures to promote the change. Then, combine this with coaching to help people through the internal emotional changes. Keep people accountable for their end of the bargain and you’ll drive real change.

Not everyone is a pyromaniac.

Communicate for clarity

In the context of organisations, it is common to think communications is a one way street. This usually looks like sending an email to tell people about your change initiative.

Now, there is nothing wrong with email, I use it a lot. But it’s use is most powerful when understood in the context of a conversation.

The communications and engagement plan is about guiding the change leader through a structured conversation with the stakeholders. Taking them them through the spaces about where this project is going and why.

Elements of conversations

Your job as a change manager is to bring structure to the conversation. A great book, The Four Conversations: Daily Communication That Gets Results, lays out four types of conversations where engaged in.

Initiative conversations, understanding conversations, performance conversations and closure conversations.

Underpinning each of the conversations is the content, structured around what, why, when, who, where, and how. The old journalist questions.

Initiative conversations are used to start a project. What do you want to do? Why is it important? When would you like it done?

Understanding conversations explore the project in more detail with the stakeholders. In addition to putting more meat on the What, Why and When, you also flesh out the Who, Where and How. This phase of conversation is more two way and can go on for some time.

When you notice resistance, what’s missing is some understanding conversations. This allows you to reduce and resolve ambiguity and to resolve key concerns.

Performance conversations are where you make a request and/or make a promise. Again following the what you want done, why, when it’s due. Who to involve and get help from, where resources might be, and advice on how to go about it.

Use Closure conversations end a project or period and acknowledge what did or didn’t happen. By acknowledging people’s contributions, you bring specific performance conversations to completion. And the project as a whole.Centering your communications around the idea of conversations and adding the above structure, is a powerful way to drive change.