Why Do People Resist Change At Work

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Why do people resist change at work and how can this resistance be overcome from an HR perspective?

1. Introduction

Change is a common feature of the workplace. This paper examines why people resist change at work. It then explores how this resistance can be surmounted from an HR viewpoint.

2. Resistance to change at work

From research into individual and organisational behaviour, it is well established that people at work can sometimes resist change (Robbins, 1992). The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) define resistance to change at work as “an individual or group engaging in acts to block or disrupt an attempt to introduce change” (CIPD, 2014, p.2) and argue that, in general, resistance to change in the workplace occurs in two ways: “resistance to the content of change” and “resistance to the process of change” (CIPD, 2014, p.2). The reasons for resistance to change at work are numerous. Resisting change enables stability and for the status quo at work to be maintained (Robbins, 1992). Change jeopardises the comfort zones and security of employees who are risk averse and who like familiarity (Holbeche, 2001). The fear of the unknown may result in resistance to change (Robbins, 1992). There may be resistance when change appears to threaten someone’s income (Robbins, 1992). Change can appear threatening to the individual worker when it is foisted on them top down without their input as they do not feel in control (Holbeche 2001). Gifford et al (2012), in their review of change programmes in NHS South of England, found that “many people do embrace change, but it is easy to feel undermined or threatened by it, even if one accepts at a broad level that change is needed. As well as the challenge of embracing new ways of working, it can be hard to let go of the old ways. Not only do people have ingrained habits and ways of thinking; they also become skilled in familiar work and may feel that their credibility is based upon it. For example, if someone spends years honing skills in a specific procedure and is then told they should be using a completely different technique, this may cut at their sense of self worth” (Gifford et al, 2012, p. 15). Thus, there may be resistance if a person’s perception of how the world of work should be is threatened. Robbins (1992) explains that “individuals shape their world through their perceptions. Once they have created this world, it resists change. So individuals are guilty of selectively processing information in order to keep their perceptions intact” (Robbins, 1992, p.281). Psychologists have studied resistance to change and it has been recognised that change may involve a significant shift for the individual, like a bereavement, where what was once certain is no longer so and they have to relinquish the familiar in order to be able to embed change (Holbeche, 2001). The psychological contract is an important consideration when looking at resistance to change at work.

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