Resistance to organisational change has been either demonised or celebrated in most research into change management, but an interesting study argues that both approaches fail to address the power relations that are pivotal to successful change.
This alternative approach from academics Robyn Thomas and Cynthia Hardy* shifts the focus:
- from asking “who resists change and why”
- to “how relations of power and resistance operate together to facilitate change”.
As they point out, while Charles Darwin famously observed that adaptation to change is the key to survival, things are more complex in practice!
There are two traditional ways in which resistance to change has been viewed:
1) Demonising resistance by thinking of it as a pathology that obstructs attempts to change organisations, and giving change agents the right to prevent it
Examples of this range from a seminal study in a US pyjama sewing factory, where employees reacted to being moved to different jobs by quitting, being absent, restricting output and showing hostility towards management, to a Harvard Business School study that treated resistance as something that needed to be overcome. “Resistors” are seen as self-interested or misunderstanding, and change agents authorised to use coercive carrot-and-stick methods to force through change including manipulation, withholding information, implying future benefits, sanctions, threats and dismissals. The change agent is on the side of the angels, and the people being changed decried as mulish and obstinate.
2) Celebrating resistance because it yields novel ideas for change that play an important role in success
This approach suggests that employees can make an important contribution to change through their questioning of the claims and understandings of change agents. This works as long as employees are willing to make counter-offers and change agents are being willing to adapt their initial plans. However, staff may be placed in the difficult position of being encouraged to resist, but then condemned if leaders do not like their responses; and it is still the change agent who determines which responses constitute resistance and how it should be dealt with.
Crucially, both approaches tend to favour the change agent and therefore legitimise unbalanced power relations between change agents and change recipients – and in both approaches the interests and assumptions of management and change agents dominate, and existing power relations are accepted and normalised:
- The demonising approach assumes employers are usually doing the ‘‘right’’ thing with change programmes, even if they sometimes mishandle aspects of implementation. In fact, organisational change rarely results in a ‘‘win-win’’ for everyone
- With the celebrating approach, change recipients are encouraged to resist. Yet this can backfire if their challenges are construed as against the organisation’s interests.
Power and resistance to change
Thomas and Hardy argue that organisational change needs to take both power and resistance into account. They write: “Power and resistance operate together in a web of relations in which power is never complete and possibilities for resistance always exist. Power is exercised through multiple points of pressure and so too is resistance. [We need to reframe the question] … from who resists organisational change, to how relations of power and resistance operate together in producing change.”
They give an example from a U.S. hospital, where reforms to reduce junior doctors’ working hours from 100 to 80 a week split their superiors into “defenders” of the status quo and “reformers” supporting the change. This case study highlights:
- “Iron man” surgeons using jokes and gossip to undermine “reformers”, using hierarchical power structures to penalise junior doctors
- Reformers resisting this and mobilising support by developing a common language and new rationales for the changes
- Over time, reformers being able to pass their positive interpretations of the new practices up to directors to displace the defenders’ negative interpretations
- Directors drawing on their position in the hierarchy to take action that made the new practices more manageable … eventually turning defenders into reformers.
The lesson from this example is that we should be wary of pre-determining particular individuals or groups as change agents and change recipients. Instead, it is vital to understand that organisations are “unfolding enactments”, how different individuals interact and contribute to the meaning of change, and how they are situated within webs of power.
Useful in complex and rapidly changing organisations
Both power and resistance to change are important, Thomas and Hardy write: “Our approach draws attention to how organisational change is accomplished through complex, messy, day-to-day working practices, rather than through planning and design. Such an understanding increases the chances of ‘successful’ change by providing greater insights into how change occurs in unexpected ways, and explains the multiple points at which changes in direction occur.”
This is useful to consider for any type of change, large or small, especially for complex and emergent change. Given the pace and high volume of change most organisations face these days, there will be constantly shifting power dynamics to consider and work with.
Here are three suggestions to help improve your chances of success when managing organisational change:
- Disregard the conventional divisions between those who are driving change and those at the receiving end of change
- Pay attention to stakeholder power dynamics, positions and allegiances can shift rapidly
- Abandon preconceived notions of resistance and treat this as an opportunity to gain fresh insights and see wider perspectives.
* Reframing resistance to organisational change, Robyn Thomas and Cynthia Hardy, Scandinavian Journal of Management