Change resistance

The nature of change and what it does to the human psyche is more or less a gray area in the field of psychology. This is only because different people respond to different things, and therefore, some people may resist change more than others and for entirely different reasons. Change resistance is, ultimately, the inevitable form of stagnancy within an organization’s processes or procedures.

The truth is, there are so many variables that must be considered regarding what change does to a person, much less an organization. Likewise, there are so many variables to consider when discussing change motivators and change resistance as well.

Today I intend to discuss the scope of factors that I witness most in organizations that affect change management theories, motivations, and resistance. Hopefully, with a better grasp of some of these factors, change managers everywhere can begin to circumnavigate common change-resistance issues and better implement change within their organizations.

I will break down my findings into 3 distinct parts.

1. Personal Motivations for Change
2. Personal Differences for Change
3. The Neuroscience of Change

Learning more about any or all of these three main factors will do wonders in your ability to manage and implement change procedures or processes.

In the popular change management book ADKAR, Jeffrey Hiatt explains that the most important thing about change management is being able to shift the attitudes of a single person at a time. I would agree with his statement.

Change management, in my experience, follows the snowball effect. Once you give that snowball some surface area and momentum, it compounds upon itself. Much like an exponential curve, getting a single individual on board – let’s say it’s a key stakeholder – is sometimes all that is needed to influence many others to accept the change or become willing to attempt it.

I call this kind of influence “trickle-down influence.” It is the nature of change managers to start procuring commitment at the head of the organization in order to influence many others due to the benefits of hierarchical systems.

Keep this in mind as you read more about the three main points mentioned above, and their respective explanations. Starting the change process from the top of the organizational hierarchy should be a given in order to compound and take advantage of the effect of proper reinforcement by superiors.

Without further ado, let’s begin our discoveries by defining the motivations-aspect of change acceptance and resistance.

Personal Motivations For Change

Due to the individuality of people, discussing change motivators, and the broad scope of variables that it inherently includes, is a difficult thing to do. Chances are that every individual is motivated by different things.

Although I cannot list every single thing that might potentially motivate someone, what I can do is generalize some various concepts that will make it easier to predict and plan for individual motivations based on certain key criteria. In this way, I can utilize some key perspectives to discuss the practical implications of personal motivations for change.

The Hierarchy of Needs

Personal motivations are rather complex, therefore, let’s begin to discuss the base of human behavior as described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

As shown in the most basic tier, physiological needs consist of the most necessary building blocks of survival. Without these, all else s trivial and unimportant.

Next comes safety-based needs. In this tier, what is generally desired is an environment in which the threat to personal health is low. What this boils down to is psychological safety, a term I bring up many times when discussing the dynamics of workplace teams and trust.

Next up is the need for love and belonging, also called social needs. Within this tier lies the craving for social interaction, acceptance, and “belongingness.”

Then we have Esteem needs. These needs are comprised of a combination of personal references for one’s own effectiveness in life and society as a whole. Essentially, esteem needs are often procured with the status that results from a person’s efforts and respect from others. This denotes feelings of self-confidence and worth.

Finally we have the need for self-actualization. This is the intrinsic desire to be the absolute best person you can be and fulfill your potential in various talents.

The reason that these needs are necessary for explaining the importance of human motivations is that it is based on a hierarchy. Put simply, you cannot progress unless the former tier has been properly nurtured and developed. Only when people feel safe, secure, and confident in their organizations can they begin to realize true potential.


Consequences, in this context, means the various rewards or punishments that can be used to modify personal behavior. Individual motivations are entirely founded by the personal needs for pleasure and, more often, the avoidance of pain.

It is a fact of life that a behavior that is rewarded is repeated more frequently, and when the pattern of reward is withdrawn, repetition also recedes.

Similar things occur when a behavior is rewarded on random occasions, the repetition of this behavior only tends to increase more slowly.

This thinking is clearly related to the psychological safety tier within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Ultimately, this is useful because this logic presents a clear need for reinforcement and proper associative consequences of key behaviors.

Obviously, determining the correct behavior or course of action, and implementing it, is what change management is about. Therefore, properly reinforcing that behavior with consistent, direct, rewards greatly increases the repetition of the task and the effectiveness of the change process.

However, there are other factors to consider when doing this.

For example, the amount of value I place on the reward that I receive is a huge factor in determining whether my personal motivation to act in a specified way is consistent. If I don’t value what I receive, then taking the specified action is worth less to me.

Another factor is how strongly I believe that my action will lead to the desired outcome. If my efforts are only rewarded SOME of the time, Is it worth it to me to take the chance again?

These are just some of the various things to consider when diving into the cause and effect relationships of consequences.


Job satisfaction and purpose are highly regarded as one of the main key factors of performance and sustainability. Ultimately, it has been studied that if a satisfied employee’s output is 100%, a purpose-driven employee produces 210-215%, a stunning difference.

Through various studies it has been analyzed that the intrinsic motivators for change within the workplace that are HIGH in job satisfaction are directly linked to individual purpose and commitment.

For example, salary, working conditions, and policies are actually factors that tend to lead to LOWER job satisfaction. But, achievements, recognition, and responsibility are directly related to a HIGHER level of job satisfaction.

The reason this is important is because it allows change managers to structure their rewards in more meaningful ways to employees. Obviously, we want to provide rewards of high worth and satisfaction, therefore, we should provide rewards that relate to the individual’s purpose and worth within the company.

There is another factor to consider here regarding talents and the potential of employees. All managers want an autonomous team, that is, a team that can act effectively on its own with little to no supervision.

What factors involve this autonomy? And why is it important to job satisfaction and growth?

Ultimately there are 3 key factors of autonomous teams.

1. Self-directed work.
People want a high degree of freedom and decision-making to control the direction and method of their work.
2. Competence.
People like to do things to the best of their ability, let alone to do them well. Providing opportunities to grow and reinforcement of effort and not particularly outcome is important.
3. Purpose.
As stated earlier, employees who act with a common purpose are not only more productive but more committed to their teams.

Operational Anxiety

Operational anxiety is, self-defined, by one’s incompetence during the beginning stages of learning or doing something new. Playing guitar, for example, requires quite a bit of resilience before one can surpass the feeling of being a beginner. Often times, people resist change or learning due to the avoidance of feeling incompetent.

This is different than the fear of failure because the anxiety is directed towards the feelings of the PROCESS of learning as opposed to the undesired outcome, such as in failure.

Because change requires unlearning old and comfortable things and re-learning new and different things, people may become resistant due to their individual motivations to avoid feeling incompetent in any aspect. This incompetence is a threat to their esteem level of Maslow’s hierarchy and, potentially, their psychological safety as well.

Allow me to quote The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook on the methods of overcoming “learning anxiety.”

“…for organizations to change at an acceptable pace, they have to learn to ‘unfreeze’ by creating a competing and greater anxiety – ‘survival anxiety’.” – The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook

Survival anxiety is based on 3 main points.

1. Disconfirmation: Creating a belief that the present course of action is not sustainable.
2. Creation of Anxiety: Instilling the belief that if one fails to change, negative consequences will be serious and impactful.
3. Creation of Psychological Safety: Providing a clear and concise reformation in action which, through coaching and support, can resolve the immediately pressing change factors and provide safety without consequences.

To do this, your “creation of psychological safety” must provide certain elements that act as support devices to those within your organization.

These support devices can be things such as:
– Training
– Encouragement
– Lack of punishment for inevitable mistakes and learning.
– Coaching
– Acknowledgments.


Personal growth has more to do with the “self-actualization” tier of Maslow’s hierarchy. This is because all people want to fulfill their potential within their respective talents and become an important piece to success, which in turn grants them furthered esteem and psychological safety.

Carl Rogers in 1957 summed up his “3 core conditions” for growth and change.

1. Congruence: Authenticity and the awareness of one’s feelings encourage mutual trust.
2. Unconditional Positive Regard: An attitude of acceptance for each other without unnecessary judgment or expectations.
3. Empathy: The willingness to understand and experience another person’s perspective by their own frame of reference.

Personal Differences For Change

So far, we have discussed the basics surrounding motivations for change, and how those motivations are generally universal and useful when dealing with change-resistance.

Now, let’s dive into personal differences. Personal differences can be viewed as the individual’s perspective of the world from which their thought-process is “wired” or tethered to their personality and temperament.

You have probably discovered many of these intrinsic characteristics within yourself, and have been made apparent through various personality indicators such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI Model).

MBTI Type Combinations

MBTI is not about right or wrong, rather, they are simply modes of preferences for which an individual experiences their personality. Let’s dive into these personality indicators to determine the inner workings of the natural state of an individual.

Extravert – Introvert

Extraverts tend to be motivated by social interaction and the external world. They like being social-able and talking with others as well as learning by activity. They enjoy starting and doing new things.

Introverts are commonly said to be energized by their internal world. They enjoy diving into their own thoughts and feelings, expressing ideas, reflective learning, and delving into more serious, but fewer, interests.

Sensing – Intuiting

Sensing people obviously focus on sensory data. They tend to pay attention to defined and detailed facts, order, and clear stages of information. They tend to trust experience.

Intuiting people tend to focus on their individual interpretations of events. They are “big-picture” people that enjoy concepts and theory, finding meaning, future-oriented ideas, and trusting their own intuitions.

Thinking – Feeling

Thinking people tend to make decisions geared with rational thought and logic. These people use a combination of cause and effect reasoning, and objective truth to determine just solutions.

Feeling people make more decisions based on emotions and sensitivity. These people tend to consider others through empathy, make decisions based on values and beliefs, and tend to be more open and accepting of others.

Judging – Perceiving

Judging people prefer situations to be “cut and dried” or, put simply, more clear. Judging people are more systematic and methodical planners who appreciate closure and dislike leaving things open to interpretation.

Perceiving people prefer more open-ended and ambiguous situations. They tend to be spontaneous, flexible, and adaptable people who dislike restrictions and detailed plans.

The importance of these points is to keep in mind that, obviously, based on personal preferences, conflicts will occur. Two people may become engrossed in a conflict that is not a matter of content but rather a matter of perception and preference.

Learning Styles

Considering the personality indicators above, another consideration you may have regarding the people within your organization is the style of learning that best suits them. Obviously, based on the information above, certain learning styles may not suit everyone effectively.

This is why it is always 100% recommended to include styles of learning and implementation of practices within your groups when you train them. Some people may find value in a PowerPoint presentation, whereas others may enjoy physical practices or performances. Either way, considering the preferences of all people is beneficial to overcoming change-resistance.

The Neuroscience of Change

Modern technology and neuroscience are consistently uncovering key elements to our behaviors and responses to change stimuli.

Here are some key examples of the findings of neuroscience and how it relates directly to change resistance.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg mentions that most of the auto-response and routine systems are based in our brain’s Basal Ganglia. In this instance, the Basal Ganglia can be considered an “operations room” of sorts, and actually requires very little energy to do so. This is the portion that controls routine-reward thinking, and therefore, habitual natures.

The pre-frontal cortex is a much less efficient area of the brain merely because it processes new information that has yet to become accustomed to our immediate response system. Constant reliance on the pre-frontal cortex causes us to feel uncomfortable because we are usually in new and different situations.

Knowing this, we can reason that the growth of our experiences and potentialities is a result of the discomfort we feel by placing ourselves in different, unfamiliar, circumstances. By reasoning, it is ok to be uncomfortable when going through the change process.

Another discovery that is useful in defining change resistance is the apparent dissonance associated with reality and our own expectations. Neuroscience calls these “errors.”

The area of the brain that generates signals from these “errors” is closely associated with our brain’s amygdala (the area that operates our fight or flight response).

This leads to a lack of logic/rationality and an increase in emotional reasoning/response. This explains why, in times of change, irrational behaviors and responses are common.

There are many more threads of neuroscience that discuss change, for example, the base references we use to describe and interpret the world around us is also called our mental “map.” Shifting these mental maps must be a result of epiphanies that directly relay separate or altered neural connections that affect the way we interpret data.

There is also the phenomenon of confirmation bias (perception is projection). We tend to emphasize the things we pay attention to or qualify data based on what we already believe or WANT to believe.


Hopefully I was able to describe some of the ways in which change resistance is procured and can be resolved. With the proper analysis and translation of the information in this blog, you can begin to form better ideas and conclusions as to the ways in which your organization can properly manage resistance!

Hopefully, I was able to help you manage change more effectively, to get in touch with me, please call (951) 833-2987 or send me a message on my website.

Thanks for reading!
Work With Austin

-Austin Denison is a change management consultant from Southern California and founder/CEO of Denison Success Systems LLC. He is the author of The Essential Change Management Guidebook: Master The Art of Organizational Change as well as The Potential Dichotomy: The Philosophy of a Fulfilling Life.


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