The Primary Reason People Resist Change

After years of leading change, I’ve discovered every change will face resistance. All change. And there is a primary reason people resist change. I believe it is the number one reason.

No one who has ever led change would disagree with my discovery. Regardless of the change someone will not agree with it – 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.

If there is one primary reason people resist change, 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 emotional response is the primary reason people resist change.

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.

It may not even be the emotions we naturally think. We may assume people feel 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 emotion which comes first and impacts all the others. 

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

People resist change because of 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. 

Here’s a list (not exhaustive) of what people feel they might be losing when you first introduce change:

  • Power
  • Comfort
  • Control
  • Information
  • Familiarity
  • Tradition
  • Stability

Add your own, but people resist change because those emotions are very real to them.

Rational or not, true or not, and it doesn’t even matter if people know the change is needed. As you know, emotions are not dictated by reality.

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

Therefore, 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.

Consequently, 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.

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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