How might resistance constitute a driver for change rather than an obstacle?

Essay, 2012

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents



Methods of dealing with resistance to change





Due to an increased rate of change in the environment, companies have to be able to adapt to new circumstances constantly in order to remain competitive. This comes along with organizational changes effecting the organization and its employees to different degrees. However, most people try to sustain the status quo and therefore resist change proposals, which often leads to dysfunctional conflicts within the change process. Top managers who want to introduce changes to their companies should therefore ask themselves how they can use upcoming resistance efficiently as a driver for change. The following paper will investigate this problem from an academic point of view in order to derive to a founded theory of how to use resistance for change instead of against it.

This paper consists of three parts and uses academic articles on topics of change and resistance, to determine main aspects of the theory and their importance for the field. These articles and their main assumptions will be discussed in a structured and critical literature review: An insight into literature about organizational change will be given, as well as its challenges and implications for resistance. As a next step, literature about resistance in organizations will be reviewed with a focus on aspects that work as drivers for resistance, different forms of resistance and how these are expressed. This part closes with a review on the two opposite perspectives of resistance: resistance as an obstacle to change and resistance as a helpful tool for change.

In the second part of the paper the precedent literature review will be used for an analysis answering the main question, deriving to a theory - based on the model of Kotter&Schlesinger - of how to use resistance in a company as a driver for change. The report will be concluded with recommendations for further research.

Literature Review

In order to derive to an answer to the question of how resistance might be a driver for change instead of an obstacle, the following literature review will increase the understanding of the topic, leading to an extensive analysis of the implications for managers in the second part. The framework used for the remainder of the paper is the following:


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(Source: own creation)


For simplification reasons, this paper assumes top-down management processes in which managers act as change agents and shop floor employees as change recipients. Bottom-up processes, in which employees simultaneously influence management and therefore are able to alter the change implementation plans, will not be taken into account.


Change is a situation interrupting an organization’s normal patterns, involving an interplay of deliberate and emergent processes (Mintzberg&Waters, 1985, in Ford, 2008). In line with this discussion, Heracleaous (2001) states, that planned organizational change is integral to the field of organizational development. While change agents determine how change can be accomplished, change recipients try to estimate what will happen to them (Gioia et al., 1994 in Ford, 2008).

Greenwood&Hinnings (1996) developed a framework to understand organizational change by differentiating between radical organizational change, involving radical transformation of the company, convergent change, defined as the fine-tuning of the existing organization, evolutionary change (slowly, gradually) and revolutionary change (affecting all parts of the organization).

Challenges for Change

How change is perceived depends on an individual’s position within the organization. Top-level managers see the diverse opportunities of change such as the development of new strategies, new challenges and possibilities for further career aspirations. Most employees and middle managers however have aversions towards change as change is considered disruptive (Strebel, 1996). In order for change programs to be successful, it is necessary to understand the corporate culture as each company operates in a unique cultural context. An in-depth knowledge is needed to identify appropriate strategies for change (Heracleaous, 2001).


The concept of resistance is not easily explained by one single definition. For the purpose of this paper the following definition by Jermier, Knights and Nord (1994: 9, in Spicer&Fleming, 2007) will be used: “[Resistance is] a reactive process where agents embedded in power relations actively oppose initiatives by other agents.” This definition makes clear, that the concepts of power and resistance are closely connected in a dynamic relationship, as resistance is the reaction to power (Spicer&Fleming, 2007: 48). In this context Spicer&Fleming have identified four faces of resistance which are a reaction to corresponding faces of power. They argue however, that the dynamic interactions between the two forces of power and resistance in fact are interconnected forms of struggle: Coercion and refusal; Manipulation and voice; Domination and escape; Subjectification and creation. Struggles are ongoing and two-way dynamic social processes (Spicer&Fleming, 2007:61), that create cycles of struggle: s an actor’s action will provoke a certain response from another, the first person will have to respond again.

Kotter&Schlesinger (1979) developed several strategies of how to deal with resistance (see Appendix 1). They emphasize, that managers often underestimate the reaction of people towards change and how to positively influence them. This implies that resistance as a reaction to change can and should be carefully managed. Their developed strategic continuum explains how these strategies depend on different variables (intensity of pre-planning, involvement of others, attempt to overcome or minimize resistance) as well as other key situational variables. Change is then implemented either fast or slowly (Appendix 2).

Drivers of resistance

Kotter&Schlesinger (1979) define the four most common reasons why people resist change as the following: Desire not to lose something valuable; misunderstanding change and its implications; believing that change does not make sense; low tolerance for change. By understanding these drivers, it should become easier for managers to predict the forms of resistance that employees might use.

Sometimes, people also resist change in order to save face, implying that accepting change would mean that previous decisions and ways of doing things were wrong (Kotter&Schlesinger, 1979).

Change agents as a driver for resistance

There are notions that the so-called change-agent-centric view ignores the possibility that change agents indeed contribute to resistance due to self-serving or self-fulfilling theories. This means that resistance does not necessarily come forth from change recipients, but that change agents’ expectations about up-coming resistance might work in a self-fulfilling way which then creates resistance, which otherwise would not have occurred (Ford, 2008).

Kotter&Schlesinger (1979) suggest, that resistance is the result of perceived injustice of broken agreements, which - according to Ford (2008) might especially be true for organizations enduring radical organizational change. There, a high probability of breaking agreements and replacing them with new ones exists. This leads to a decrease of trust between different parties and a loss of credibility of the change agent(s). By failing to restore trust, change agents contribute to resistance. Therefore, change agents contribute to resistance both by their own actions and perceptions, as well as by breaking agreements and destroying the trust-relationship with change recipients. Resistance can thus not only be seen as a response to change but as an expression of the quality of the agent- recipient relationship (Ford, 2008).

Change agents can also act as drivers for resistance by failing to legitimize change, misrepresenting its success chances and failing to call people to action (Ford, 2008).

Forms of Resistance

According to Kotter&Schlesinger (1979) there are different forms of how people react to change: passive resistance, undermining change aggressively, embracing change.

In ckroyd&Thompson’s definition of resistance, they name a range of resistant tactics, including “[the] failure to work very hard or conscientiously, through not working at all, deliberate output restriction, practical joking, pilferage, sabotage and sexual conduct” (1999: 1-2, in Spicer&Fleming, 2007). These expressions of resistance are also mentioned by Shapiro&Kirkman (1999, in Ford, 2008), mentioning negative behaviors such as a decrease of productivity and work quality, less cooperation and stealing as forms of resistance to being betrayed or treated unfairly.

Extreme forms of resistance include sabotage, theft or violent behavior which is expressed with the hope to “break even” for being treated wrongly and therefore to balance justice and injustice (Ford, 2008).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


How might resistance constitute a driver for change rather than an obstacle?
Stockholm University
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Power, Change, Resistance, management, drivers, kotter, schlesinger, ford, change agent, struggle, subjectification, creation, domination, escape, coercion, manipulation, voice, refusal, fleming, spicer, mintzberg
Quote paper
Anita Theis (Author), 2012, How might resistance constitute a driver for change rather than an obstacle?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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