Organizational Barriers and Employees' Resistance in Strategic Change Processes

Seminar Paper, 2003

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

List of figures

List of tables

1 The impact of strategic change processes on the organization and its individuals

2 Basics of organizational change, change management and resistance to change
2.1 Archetypes and change patterns of organizational change
2.2 Definition, objectives, process and tasks of change management
2.3 Definition and types of resistance to strategic change

3 Identifying and understanding organizational barriers and employees’ resistance in strategic change processes
3.1 The symptoms of resistance to change
3.2 Reasons for the existence of organizational barriers and the analysis of organizational inertia
3.3 Reasons for the formation of employees’ resistance
3.4 The analysis of cultural barriers

4 Promoting strategic change: Methods for overcoming organizational barriers and employees’ resistance
4.1 Organizational culture as a lever for handling organizational barriers and employees’ resistance
4.2 Methods for reducing organizational barriers in strategic change
4.3 Methods for coping with employees’ resistance to strategic change

5 The positive perspective of resistance: Regarding resistance as a constructive tool for management


Appendix A

List of figures

Figure 1: Archetypes of organizational change

Figure 2: The organizational law of change according to Lewin

Figure 3: Types of barriers of organizational change

List of tables

Table 1: Overall symptoms of resistance

1 The impact of strategic change processes on the organization and its individuals

Dramatic environmental shifts due to the rapid increase of dynamic and complexity have put organizations under high pressure.[1] Consequently organizations are forced to undergo strategic changes in order to create organizational adaptability and flexibility to prevail in heavily disputed markets.[2] However, although organizational change[3] is considered to be essential the success rate of change is still very low. The reasons for these failures are quite obvious but they are not well acknowledged. However one crucial reason is that employees and organizations, the change targets, do not welcome changes at all.[4] Moreover as a natural reaction they will inevitably resist change.[5] Considering these difficulties the resistance of organizations and its members to changes should be seen as the central challenge of change management and be taken seriously to improve the change performance of organizations.[6] To meet this challenge it is essential that change agents[7] acknowledges as well as understands resistance already at an early stage so that adequate strategies can be developed at the right time. In consequence the management of change should focus on a constructive approach of resistance since it is stated as one of the key success factors of change management.[8]

The objective of this paper is to give firstly comprehensive reasons why organizational barriers and employees’ resistance towards change exist and secondly reasonable methods that are able to reduce and overcome resistance to change.

The paper consists of two crucial parts. The first one is the analysis of resistance consisting of the two elements recognizing the symptoms and understanding the reasons of resistance. The second part deals with ways to handle resistance by applying different kinds of effective methods in order to overcome resistance as well as to create a framework within future changes can be carried out more easily. At the end a different point of view of resistance will be discussed stressing its positive aspects. But first of all essential basics of changes, its management and resistance to change will be exposed to introduce the topic.

2 Basics of organizational change, change management and resistance to change

2.1 Archetypes and change patterns of organizational change

Dealing with organizational transformation requires a closer look at the nature of change.[9] Firstly it is necessary to find out where or in which sector of the organization change can take place and secondly to distinguish the patterns of organizational change.[10]

According to Reiss, organizational change mainly refers to three areas of the organization – strategy, resources and structure. Hence there are three archetypes of organizational change which can be characterized in sum as very profound and extensive (Figure 1).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Archetypes of organizational change

Source : Reiß (1997), p. 8

A new strategic orientation of the organization can cause a strategy change. The strongest form of strategy change is called conversion. For example a service conversion emerges whenever the organization changes from a producer into a service provider of the same product. The second change type refers to resources such as human, technological and ecological resources. The third archetype is the change of structure which appears when processes are transformed. An emerging organizational change affecting all sectors simultaneously represents a change of the entire organization. Different to the mentioned archetypes, this extensive change may affect each stakeholder of the organization as well as the

distribution of tasks through out the entire value chain.

Generally there are two dominant types of change patterns in literature distinguished after their intensity of intervention – the revolutionary and evolutionary change.[11] Revolutionary change [12] is a radical and fundamental change which is temporary and discontinuous. The procedure of change is rational and planned. This change pattern is often called “transformation”[13] because of its profound and irreversible character. In opposite to this the evolutionary change undergoes incremental and autonomous change steps. It represents a long-term and continuous development of the organization.[14] Advocates of evolutionary change are convinced that organizations cannot put up with large changes but only incremental change steps whereas supporters of revolutionary change are of the opinion that only high pressures on acting can achieve a high level of acceptance and thus reduce resistance.[15]

But changes will remain ineffective if there is no framework that plans and coordinates the process. This reflects the obligation of a management of change which has advanced to one of the core management disciplines and key determinants for the long-term success of organizations.[16]

2.2 Definition, objectives, process and tasks of change management

Change management is defined as a management function which carries out purposeful analysis, planning, implementation, evaluation and steady development of integrated change measures within organizations.[17]

Change management follows two basic objectives. The first objective represents the improvement of organization’s adaptability to environmental changes which includes creating a general readiness and willingness of the organization for new corporate changes and orientations. The second one is to change the patterns of employee’s behavior which is especially important because the success of implementing change depends on people who are involved in the adaptation process.[18]

Change processes are mostly based on the three-step change model of Lewin (Figure 2).[19] According to his theories change is the movement from the status quo, current equilibrium, to the desired state, a new equilibrium, while going through the three important stages unfreezing, moving and refreezing.[20] In the unfreezing stage the organization is required to start doubting the established patterns and to create its readiness for change. This stage is the most important one because a change program can only be accomplished successfully when the organization and its members clearly see the necessity of it.[21] After the organization is unfrozen the moving part starts and the organization can be altered into the new and desired state. In these two stages change agents will have to put up with a high level of resistance.[22] Finally if the new equilibrium is reached the organization must be refrozen to operate within the new organization.[23]

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2: The organizational law of change according to Lewin

Source: Schreyögg (1999), p. 493 quoted after Lewin (1958), p. 210-211

A modification of Lewin’s model represents Krüger’s five phase model.[24] These five phases are initialization, conception, mobilization, implementation and stabilization. In these phases the tasks of change managers and agents[25] are firstly to identify the need and activate the power for change. Secondly change targets are to be fixed and programs of measures to be developed. Thirdly the change concept has to be communicated creating willingness and ability of change. Fourthly prior-ranking plans and of follow-up projects have to be implemented and finally the results have to be established and the readiness and

ability of change conserved.

However, in reality despite significant efforts many transformational attempts fail at last due to the difficulty of the implementation stage. During this stage change agents will encounter a high level of resistance which should not been underestimated. The coming chapter will present the different types of resistance to change.[26]

2.3 Definition and types of resistance to strategic change

Resistance to change can be understood as an expression of disapproval and rejection of organizations and individuals to any alteration of their current situation that causes unanticipated delays, cost and instabilities to strategic change processes.[27]

In theory there are many different types of resistance existing in the external and internal environment of organizations. Types of external barriers refer to relationships between the organization and its external stakeholders such as investors, customers, suppliers or strategic alliances and networks which in case they are well established can damp change at last. The focus of this paper is on the various types of internal barriers which can be grouped broadly into individual barriers [28] and organizational barriers (Figure 3).[29]

Employees resist because of certain barriers. In any strategic change processes there are misunderstandings of change, disagreement with change or inability to act according to change requirements. These situations reflect the barriers to understanding, barriers to acceptance and barriers to acting within change processes.[30]

Organizations resistance consists of resource barriers, structural barriers and organizational inertia.[31] The phenomenon inertia is a very common barrier to strategic changes. It can be defined as the organization’s persistence on the status quo. Organizations have a strong tendency to stick to established patterns of working and thinking particularly when these patterns have proved to be successful in the past. Success is often interpreted as the breed for inertia.[32] There are many sources of organizational inertia which can be found both in the strategy formulation stage and in the implementing stage. Rigid strategic frames, distorted perceptions of the change’s need, a low motivation for change or a lack of creative response are examples of inertia in the strategy formulation stage whereas rigid structures, an entrenched culture or political deadlocks represent the implementation inertia.[33] Due to its overall character affecting both, the organization and its employees, cultural barriers are not put in one of these two categories but will be analyzed separately.


[1] Swanda (1979), p. 497.

[2] Reiß (1997a), p. 6.

[3] In this paper organizational change is used as the synonym for strategic change.

[4] Strebel (1998), pp. 140-141.

[5] Robbins (1998), p. 632.

[6] Pardo del Val/Fuentes, p. 148.

[7] Change agents are those who conduct change directly whereas change managers have the overall responsi- bilities for the change and its success; Connor/Lake (1994), p. 12.

[8] Connor/Lake (1994), p. 133.

[9] Reiß (1997a), p. 7.

[10] The following passage is based on Reiß (1997a), pp. 7-9.

[11] Vahs (2003), pp. 327-328.

[12] This type of change appears if an organization is in a crisis and thus under high pressure. One example of radical change is the business reengineering concept; Krüger (1994), pp. 369-371.

[13] Tischler (1999), pp. 69-70.

[14] Vahs (2003), p. 329.

[15] Krüger (1994), pp. 369-370.

[16] Reiß (1997a), p. 6.

[17] Vahs (2003), p. 252.

[18] Hellriegel/Slocum/Woodman (1986), pp. 576-577; Swanda (1979), p. 497.

[19] For an overview of transformational process models which are modifications of Lewin’s model see Müller-Stevens, /Lechner (2001), p. 408.

[20] Robbins (1998), pp. 638-640; Umstot (1984), pp. 392-393.

[21] Schreyögg (1999), p. 492.

[22] Kanter/Stein/Jick (1992), pp. 381-382; Robbins (1998), p. 638-640.

[23] Schreyögg (1999), pp. 491-492.

[24] This passage is based on Krüger (2002), pp. 48-49.

[25] Change managers are those who have the overall responsibilities for the change and its success, whereas change agents are those who conduct change directly; Connor/Lake (1994), p. 12.

[26] Krüger (2002), p. 72.

[27] Doppler/Lauterburg (1996), p. 293; Connor/Lake (1994), p. 133; For an overview of definitions of resis- tance see Waddell/Sohal (1998), p. 543.

[28] A synonym for employees’ resistance.

[29] Krüger (1994), pp. 361-364.

[30] The differentiation of barriers is taken from Connor and Lake (1994) serving as a framework to categorize the reasons of individual resistance, Connor/Lake (1994), p. 134.

[31] Connor/Lake (1994), p. 142; Hellriegel/Slocum/Woodman (1986), pp. 586-587; Rumelt (1995), pp. 102-103; Volberda (1999), pp. 136-161.

[32] Rumelt (1995), p. 103; Sull (1999), p. 44, p. 50; Umstot (1984), p. 394.

[33] Fletcher/Taplin (2002), pp. 188-190; Rumelt (1995), pp. 106-115; Strebel (1992), pp. 51-62; Sull (1999), pp. 45-48. The differentiation of inertia in the strategy formulation stage and implementing stage is taken from Pardo del Val/Fuentes (2003), pp. 149-150.

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Organizational Barriers and Employees' Resistance in Strategic Change Processes
University of Hannover  (Unternehmensführung und Organisation)
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Thao Binh Pham Thi (Author), 2003, Organizational Barriers and Employees' Resistance in Strategic Change Processes, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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