The Number One Reason People Resist Change

After years of leading change I’ve discovered some things about the process. One of those discoveries is change will face resistance. All change.

Surprised by this revelation? Not if you’ve actually ever led change.

If the change has any value someone will not agree – at least initially. It’s almost human nature at work. 

There is something in all of us, which initially resists change we didn’t initiate.

And, in addition to this, I’ve discovered the most common reason change is resisted. I mean the biggest – number one reason people rebel against change. 

If there were one big reason, would it be helpful to know?

Understanding this can help a leader navigate through change. Ignoring it makes the process of change miserable for everyone – and often keeps the change process from being effective. 

What’s the most common reason change is resisted?

It’s an emotion people feel. An emotion.

They may not even be able to describe what they are feeling, but the emotion is more powerful at the time than the excitement the change may bring.

And, it may not even be the emotions we naturally think. We assume anger, confusion, or fear. And, while those are often true emotions of change, in my observation those aren’t the most common or at least initial emotions. 

There is one which comes first and impacts all the others. 

What is the most common emotion which causes resistance to change?

A sense of loss

There you have it – and must understand it. People emotionally feel a sense of loss in the process of change.

Have you ever felt like you were losing or had lost something?

How did you react? Didn’t you try to hold on to whatever you were losing? Did your blood pressure rise a bit? Did you “feel” something? 

That’s what people feel in the initial days of change. It’s not usually a good feeling emotion. 

And, translate that sense of loss into the organizational context. 

Loss of power
Loss of comfort
Loss of control
Loss of information
Loss of familiarity
Loss of tradition
Loss of stability

These aren’t always rational emotions. They are often perceived as bigger than they really are.

But, they are real emotions to the person experiencing the emotion of loss.

It doesn’t even matter if people know the change is needed. Emotions are not dictated by reality. But, because change is change – their emotions are based on some truth. Things are changing.

So, they feel they are losing something in the change and it causes them to resist the change. 

I have found, as a leader, if I understand what people are struggling with I’m better prepared to lead them through it. Some people are never going to get on board with the change, but many times people just need someone to at least acknowledge their sense of loss. It doesn’t eliminate the emotion, but genuine empathy allows me to keep leading.

The great news from my pastor/leader friends is you already know how to assist people deal with a sense of loss.  

When a leader discounts or ignores a person’s emotions the resistance becomes more intense, because the emotions become more intense. This is actually when some of those other emotions – like anger – are often added. The process of change is then stalled and sometimes even derailed.

Leader, are you paying attention to the emotions of change?

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23 thoughts on “The Number One Reason People Resist Change

  1. As I read through this I can see it applying to members of the church I serve and say 'yes, that is right a lot of truth here.' But something seemed to be missing. Then I realized the one thing missing (at least in my opinion) in each of these areas is "FEAR." Resistance to change is not just about loss but fear of loss. I will try to explain with two examples.

    A non church example. One of the local hospitals was bought out by a big chain. Buildings named after donors are having the names removed. Free parking is no longer free. A lot of change happening. Even as a pastor making visits I can feel a loss of control, a loss of the familiar. And I admit that I do not find this change easy. But the difference in accepting or embracing the change and resisting is does this loss make me fearful.

    Another example: Our church has an old bus that is rarely used. We finally decided to sell it. The loss of this bus is celebrated by many from those who were responsible for its upkeep (loss of responsibility and control) and those who saw it as an eye sore. This loss is good because the change is not feared.

    With any change I am sure there is some level of loss. The key to resistance or acceptance is perception, how we perceive the change/loss. Is the loss good or bad, is it something to embrace or fear? So here is the million dollar question or the great task at hand – how do we change people's perception of change and what may be at risk of loosing from something to fear to something to celebrate? In my opinion there lies the challenge. Thanks for a great post. It did get me to thinking.

  2. Wow Ron. I am catching up with your posts on this topic (reading them in inverse order : ).
    Thanks so much for sharing this, I really hadn't realized this, that sense of loss. Now that you have pointed this out to me I can really feel it.

    I love how you said people can get stuck if the emotion isn't acknowledged. Thank you, this really helps.

    Thanks for your ministry.

  3. Loss of quality was my number one reason for resisting change in my first career (public education). Most of the changes brought by school leadership and political/legislative mandate had the effect of reducing the standard – even though it was presented as an improvement. Even the best of the change initiatives were just shifts in emphasis; I never did see one which was actually improvement.

    I still believe that I was right to fight those changes. However, it is very helpful for me to always put myself in the other person's place since when I propose changes, I need to "seek first to understand" the concerns being shared with me.

  4. One question I always ask when someone is proposing a change is "why?".

    If this is change for the sake of change, please hit the pause button.

    If this is change to solve a problem, avoid a problem, or honestly improve something then let's pray, talk and think this through.

    • Though I agree change for change's sake can sometimes be silly, I also think we should "push back" on resistance to change based on nothing more than "I don't like it, so you must justify it for me." Of course you don't like change. Very few people do. So what? If we accept the fact that LIFE. IS. CHANGE. – why do I have to justify it to you (or anyone else)?

      As a leader, change agent, person who is trying to get stuff done in a world that thrives on mediocrity and status quo, I am bothered by the notion that I must defend a life constant.

      Our message, instead, should be one that encourages a mindset of constant change. We are on a journey – an adventure – a quest – called life. It is full of twists and turns and blind corners. No two experiences are the same. And as such, we must quit trying to make it a game of Candyland or Sorry. Life is like a little brother that walks by and flips the Monopoly board on its head, scattering all the pieces and cards in total disruption.

      IMHO, we make way too big a deal out of this. X isn't working? Then let's change X and try something different. Let's be smart about it, but we rarely have to spend 6 months (and sometimes much more) thinking and praying through issues to be smart about it. The time we waste, in many cases, isn't about making the perfect decision (which doesn't exist). It's more about bringing consensus and comfort to the people involved.

      If, instead, we cultivated a culture that accepted change as normal and expected, consensus and comfort would, for one, not be the marker for a final decision. Secondly, it would come around much more quickly.

      The enemy has us right where it wants us – hung up in process trying to play nice and make everyone happy, forgetting the bigger picture of Kingdom effectiveness, impact, and sacrifice.

      Sorry to ramble. This issue gets to me…

      • No argument here. Push back. Lead change. It's vital. My point is understanding where people are coming from, which I believes help you lead them better.Good thoughts.
        Twitter: Ronedmondson

  5. Great post!!! I think the ball was hit so hard out of the park, we can't even finding it floating the bay. The fear of change coming from the fear of losing, love the connection, one we don't see or hear about often.

    • Awesome. I love Compassion. I've been near your headquarters when at Community Church Builders. I think they used to be across the street from you guys.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  6. If you follow William Bridges (Transitions), he is very strong on loss as the biggest reason people have an initial resistance to change.