Is resistance to change over-rated?

I recently received a recommendation to look at some material describing multiple “strategies for overcoming resistance to change”. It reminded me of the research that has underpinned the development of the Tipping Point Change Management Simulation, which suggested that there’s a common tendency to overstate the amount of genuine, proactive resistance that changes encounter, and the role that such resistance plays in slowing changes down or stopping them in their tracks.

Of course, being aware of and tuning-in to whatever resistance is occurring would be a very sensible step for any change leader to take. If people are resisting, they have reasons for doing so. If they’re willing to articulate those reasons, we have a potentially valuable source of constructive feedback that could help us to improve the change itself and/or the way it is being communicated and implemented.

But when we struggle to make changes happen in the way we’ve planned, blaming this on the resistors may be a bit too much of an easy, convenient explanation. In Creating Contagious Commitment*, Andrea Shapiro reminds us that “It is easy to underestimate the power of apathy and to overestimate the effect of resistance”, suggesting that “most change initiatives fail not from resistance or insufficient funds, but because people simply stop paying attention to them. That is, initiatives fail from apathy; they are ignored to death.”

Have you ever responded to a change that was being promoted in your workplace by, in effect, ignoring it? I’ll admit that I have! My work life was already very busy, I saw the change in question as an unwanted additional burden, I didn’t want to engage with it, so I didn’t. Ignoring it was a lot easier than fighting it.

On reflection, I think that ignoring the proposed change, being apathetic towards it, was actually quite a rational attitude for me to adopt at that time. Especially given the history that I had experienced in that particular organisational setting – a history of a number of earlier change initiatives that had initially received strong support from senior managers but had quite quickly run out of steam.

It seems to me that, for people who don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about a proposed change, being apathetic towards it may often be more rational than expending the time and energy that would be involved in actively resisting it.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

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