October 16, 2020


Overcoming Resistance to Change

Each EmpowerED 3.2.1 features a brief summary of my musings about and learning from multiple disciplines as they apply to leadership in education. 


Resistance to change is no joke and is the most frequently requested topic of discussion in my graduate teaching. David Shore wrote in “Making Change Happen: Five Keys to Driving Successful Change Initiatives” about a Harvard Business School study by John Kotter that found that 70% of change efforts fail and further, mismanaging change is #1 reason CEOs are fired. Mismanaging change leads to unhappy stakeholders in any sector, public or private. Unhappy stakeholders are usually uninformed and can store a ton of negative emotional energy that leads to the boss becoming involved. And when the boss gets involved at this point, things don’t usually work out well. 


3 Big Ideas


  1. Why do people resist change?
    Chris Pennington of Emerson Human Capital wrote “People Are Hardwired to Resist Change” in April 2018 saying, “We are hardwired to resist change – it’s natural. Part of the brain – the amygdala – interprets change as a threat to the body and releases the hormones for fear, fight or flight. Your body is actually protecting you from change.” Robert Tanner of Business Consulting Solutions, LLC created this short clip “8 Reasons Employees Resist Change.” See what you think. Finally, my all-time favorite tool for examining attitudes about change comes from Paula Rutherford’s ASK Construct. The idea is to examine the A (attitude) through the lens of S (skill deficit) and/or K (knowledge gap) and support accordingly. For skill deficit, we offer strategy and for knowledge gaps we offer learning. 
  2. Where does resistance to change come from? 
    Let’s face it; most people prefer predictability and stability in both their personal and professional lives. So, people typically avoid situations that upset the order of things, threaten their self-interests, increase stress, or involve risks. When faced with changes, people usually resist initially. The resistance continues and, in some cases increases, until they are able to recognize the benefits of change to themselves or their group. I know that most people resist change because of lack of communication– on the what, why, when, how, who. When people understand the rationale behind the change strategy, they are a lot more likely to believe it is needed to keep successful. Leaders can and should share the challenges being faced. Explain why the change is needed and what the challenges are. “Managing Change: Unit One” from Learning Forward is my go-to for teaching leaders effective ways to navigate change. Take a peek; I think you’ll like it! 
  3. What can be done about resistant people? 
    Pennington suggests we focus on three things to overcome the psychological costs of change that keep us chained to the past

    • Surface all of the frustrations with the current system. Focus attention on how it causes challenge.
    • Describe life after the change, including a better work life and success.
    • Engage in small steps toward the change, like choosing change leaders and promoting  small wins.

    Catherine Adenle  writes in “12 Reasons Employees Resist Change in the Workplace” makes the astute point that, “While we can’t change the behavior of others, we can change our own.” She offers important tips that can help an organization move forward, even in the face of resistance. 

    • Communications must be timely, straightforward, and consistent.
    • Leaders walk the talk, not talk the walk.
    • Have emotional intelligence and be available to support employees affected by the change. Be involved early on and help guide others.
    • Listen and listen some more with an open mind and seek real input.
    • Roll up your sleeves and get involved by working side-by-side with employees.
    • Make change goals realistic to achieve and make sure everyone knows and understands the reasons for the change.


“One of the most common ways to overcome resistance to change is to educate people about it beforehand.”
John Kotter, Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership Emeritus and author


“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed. ”  
– Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization and senior lecturer at MIT


1 Question

If you’re working on a change, do your communications explain why it is needed or do they highlight only accomplishments and cheer to avoid sharing the real situation?



About the Author: Marcia Baldanza is also the author of Professional Practices, a Just ASK Senior Consultant. and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.










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