Embracing Resistance to Change as an HR Tool

December 8, 2022

Photo of James Maddox
James Maddox

Change is inevitable.

When a large aerospace company was facing fierce competition and pressure to decrease the time to develop new products, it embarked on changes that represented both huge risk to the future of the entire company and possibly immense payoffs if the change worked.

The company set a straightforward goal of reducing development time by 50%, created a broad coalition of internal stakeholders at all levels of the organization and put out a simple and clear message of the goal. The effort was led both by officials at the top and employees in the engineering department, the largest organizational unit.

One key to success in gaining support for the change was that input and ideas were sought out from everyone who wanted to participate. The company aggressively provided training in process improvement to all employees, and it brought in outside expertise to facilitate cross-functional teams as well as to stress the need for deep culture change.

Not everyone was on board with what they considered a too-aggressive strategy and they waited for the effort to die so they could return to business as usual. But, the effort was sustained with ongoing training, continuous communication and open sharing of metrics and financial information.

"People are wired for change. Hardwired to seek novelty. Without that, people get really bored. People are also hardwired for stability, for seeking predictable events or behavior."

James Maddox, Teaching assistant professor of human resource and workforce development education

Some leaders in the company who were initially against the change began to see the culture change taking place and wanted the same focus in their areas. Within three years, the time to bring a new product to the market was less than half the time of the previous product launch and financial rewards were in the millions. Other benefits for the company were higher employee morale, lower employee turnover, higher product quality and lower scrap rates.

James Maddox, Ph.D., tells this story in his new book, Embracing Resistance to Change: Facilitating Change Differently Through the Paradox of Resistance, to illustrate lessons learned when resistance to change is approached from positive psychology. Maddox is a teaching assistant professor of Human Resource and Workforce Development Education at the University of Arkansas.


What Is Resistance to Change?

Resistance to change has typically been seen as something that automatically occurs during a change effort and is treated by leadership as something to eliminate as quickly as possible.

Resistance is seen as a negative that will only serve to delay or derail a change effort. But what if organizations, instead of fighting resistance and making assumptions, were to embrace resistance to change?

What if resistance were to be leveraged and encouraged? What if resistance and change, in general, were to be viewed through a lens grounded in positive psychology?


What Does It Mean to "Embrace" Resistance to Change?

Maddox believes that it's how you embrace change that counts. In his book, he introduces a new tool, the Change Resistance Paradox Model, as a way to lead change from a more inclusive and positive way. The book is based upon Maddox's consulting experiences with organization development over the past 20 years.

Change, Maddox says, is a paradox: change and resistance are both baked into our nature. He calls to mind our nomadic ancestors and the restlessness we inherited, the risk-taking written in our genes.

"People are wired for change," he says. "Hardwired to seek novelty. Without that, people get really bored."

But those same ancestors also occupied environments where the unpredictable – an unknown food, an unrecognized sound – could kill.

"People are also hardwired for stability, for seeking predictable events or behavior."

Learning to be a good leader is, Maddox says, "learning to recognize that change and resistance are both parts of the human experience." Guiding change means facilitating both sides of the experience.

The model addresses how to consider healthy resistance and healthy avoidance as well as unhealthy resistance and unhealthy avoidance, all important dimensions around this construct of "resistance."


The Don'ts of Managing Resistance to Change

Business gurus have long taught models for overcoming resistance to change. The baseline comes from John Kotter, Ph.D., who wrote the authoritative book Leading Change. Kotter's work examines the many types of resistance to change.

Embracing Resistance to Change: Facilitating Change Differently Through the Paradox of Resistance

For example, some people resist out of self-interest, afraid change will cost them personally, or because they don't trust that change will treat them fairly. Many resist for practical reasons, unable to see the same positive outcomes that management sees, often incorrectly. And some simply have a low tolerance for change, afraid they cannot change or that the changes invalidate their work or decisions.

A central tenet of the book is the notion that resistance serves a valuable purpose and is not just something to be squashed or avoided. Often times, resistance is valid because the change that is being pushed from the top is poorly planned, doesn't engage all organizational members and is sometimes even the wrong change.

Knowing why people resist change can help HR leaders and organizational leaders decide how to best manage the resistance in the workplace. Leaders must also understand their own levels of resistance. But knowing the "do's and don'ts" of how to manage the resistance is also key.

Maddox points out that some approaches for managing resistance to change in the workplace are "fraught with danger and difficulty," for instance, using threats and coercion to break resistance to change, or using manipulation and information control to win over resisters. Both, Maddox says, are just as likely to exacerbate resistance as manage it successfully.

Take manipulation. Maddox recalls one experience when he was part of a cross-functional team, a group of experts assembled by a medium-sized nonprofit to game out the best approach to organizational change. Or so he thought.

At the first meeting, "one of the administrators said, ‘Here's what we want. We need to convince everybody else that it's their idea.'" Leadership wasn't interested in conversation; they wanted to scrub and spin the data.

Seeing the disingenuous intentions, the team dropped away, leaving leadership no option but to push the change without support. "That administrator," he recalls, "was terminated about a year later."

If employees weren't resisting because of a lack of trust before, they certainly were after such manipulative methods of managing resistance.

Other approaches to managing resistance, such as using compromise and bargaining, can also backfire.

Maddox says most organizations think in zero-sum terms: "There's always give and take, so everybody's got to give up something." But it's hard to win over resisters when management's position is, "We're going to negotiate cutting this candy bar in half – but we're taking the bigger half."

Not only do these approaches run the risk of damaging trust, but they also don't address the other root causes of resistance.


The Do's of Managing Resistance to Change

So, what approaches should HR professionals keep in their toolkits?

Maddox proposes a thought experiment: Think of organizational change efforts as a conversation between friends. Successful friendships aren't monologues, they are dialogues meant to embrace what's best for both parties.

If you propose an idea to a close friend, Maddox says, and you get strong pushback, "you don't say, ‘Why are you being resistant?' You say things like ‘Oh, I hadn't looked at it that way,' or ‘You raise a good point.'"

When someone pushes back, it's because they care, and that must be leveraged. "It's easier to deal with resistance," says Maddox, "than apathy."

Maddox proposes the idea that resistance must be encouraged to be overcome and managed authentically rather than autocratically.

How, then, do you engage people authentically? The solution, says Maddox, is collaboration.


Create Spaces for Participation

Involving resisters in planning and implementing change holds the most potential for success and the best foundation to build on.

Human resources managers are instrumental in creating spaces for participation to happen. Maddox recalls a city government's change effort some years ago, working with the HR department of the city of Wichita, Kansas. The goal? Organizing a massive World Café, a human resources management tool using informal, café-style settings and small discussion groups to ensure that every member of the government, top to bottom, had a seat at the table – literally.

Leadership, however, was nervous. Maddox wanted everyone, all 5,000 employees, invited. "They said, ‘We can't shut down the city! We'd have nobody at the police departments!'"

"What you can't do," Maddox says, "is handpick the people that always go along and exclude those that you know will provide a negative perspective."

Leadership agreed to trust the various departments' decision-making; in the end, over 500 attended to great success, with individuals able to choose to attend or not.

Forward-thinking leaders use HR tools like the World Café method to create cultures of collaboration, ensuring that organizational change isn't intrusive but inclusive.


Make Everyone Agents of Change

"Resistance happens," Maddox says, "when people aren't genuinely and authentically involved."

Maddox offers a simple example. A company must implement a new payroll system, replacing the one employees trained on. It's necessary – the old software won't work with modern operating systems. But the mere fact that change is a necessity doesn't guarantee that it will be met with enthusiasm.

"Because change is inevitable," Maddox says, "leadership downplays resistance, treats the change as a project. They make Gantt charts, roll out beta tests and hunt bugs – pushing through the process, yet half the people won't embrace it."

Why should they? It's happening to them, not with them. Yet leadership often draws the wrong conclusions, bemoaning that "We buy them (employees) something new, and they still don't like it."

The solution? Get people involved so they have a sense of agency. "The best incentive," says Maddox, "is being part of a community," part of something bigger than themselves.

"Instead of handpicking four or five individuals – usually all ‘yes' people – and designating them as ‘the change team,'" Maddox suggests, "involve all organizational members, stating to everyone that they are change agents and that their voices and ideas and input are critical for organizational success."

For HR, this might require juggling multiple change teams handling multiple aspects of the project. It might even lead to more initial resistance, with competing ideas needing reconciling.

"Making everyone a change agent and leveraging organizational coalitions," Maddox says, "is about organizational culture. It's building a culture of inclusion and shared participation." Manage that, and you manage resistance.

"Leadership (should be) actively encouraging resistance in order to facilitate further conversations, which will, by definition, bring everyone into the same community, evaporating internal tribes and barriers."

James Maddox, Teaching assistant professor of human resource and workforce development education

Share Information and Decision-Making

Information sharing is another approach at the heart of successfully managing resistance to change.

Maddox outlines a common business scenario: "Leadership decides they must expand into a new product line or get left behind. They grab their senior leadership team, map out a strategy, then roll out that change and try to get everybody else on board after the fact."

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they meet resistance. Confused employees wonder, "What is so obvious to leadership? What information do they have that we don't?"

The solution? Have HR facilitate an open culture by sharing information and decision-making as much as is practical.

First, Maddox suggests allowing "decisions to be made at the level that makes the most sense, clearly communicating how decisions will be made and providing valid reasons for which decisions will be made collaboratively and which will be reserved for leadership."

Delegating responsibility allows for inclusive decision-making, ensuring every team member is included in the change effort, all ideas are recognized during brainstorming, and all members share responsibility for outcomes.

Second, Maddox suggests HR professionals build trust and confidence in their employees by practicing "‘open-book management,' such as sharing relevant financial data and salaries, thus avoiding the secrecy that typically accompanies salary information and possibly implies dishonesty and an inability to justify differences in pay."

At the same time, Maddox suggests encouraging organization members to challenge assumptions and communicate concerns.

"Leadership," Maddox says, should be "actively encouraging resistance in order to facilitate further conversations, which will, by definition, bring everyone into the same community, evaporating internal tribes and barriers."

Instead of increasing resistance, bringing every voice and concern into the conversation decreases the need for making assumptions at all.


Assign Devil's Advocates

Maddox says one of the most effective HR tools for managing resistance by embracing resistance is establishing devil's advocate roles while simultaneously stressing team focus.

Colleagues talk in the office.

"You've set up change teams throughout the organization. Assign devil's advocates to collect all the things that aren't going to work, the things they're hearing in the hallways, why this change is wrong, what's missing."

The people most vocal against something tend to be vocal, regardless. Formalizing that natural tendency harnesses otherwise negative energy for the good of the team.

"Letting devil's advocates voice fears," says Maddox, "creates a culture of openness," one that lowers levels of resistance ultimately by raising them initially.

It also ensures that those leading the change make the most informed decisions possible, while those affected by the change have the most information available. "I've never seen anybody make a bad decision because of too much information," Maddox observes.


University of Arkansas ONLINE: Embracing Change

"I've actually had a student ask, ‘How can I get my employees to do what I want?'" Maddox muses. "If you figure that out, let me know."

Ultimately, earning a bachelor's in Human Resource and Workforce Development Education online from the University of Arkansas is less about learning to tell people what to do than learning to listen to what they can do.

Maddox tries to teach students that the goal is "to learn how to train people, how to develop their talent, how to be an inclusive leader."

Students learn to understand human behavior so they can coach employees no matter what leadership role or situation they find themselves in.

But students also learn how change and resistance to change in an organization originates with the people involved, and how embracing people – their ambitions, their failures, their need for stability, their hunger for change – ensures that organizations, and the people that make them, meet their full potential.

This unique perspective makes for a broad degree, one Maddox says is "applicable for higher-level HR positions beyond just the entry-level and ideal for curious, inquisitive people interested in leading from a more inclusive perspective."

If you'd like to learn more about pursuing a bachelor's in HRWD at the University of Arkansas ONLINE, visit the Online Bachelor's Degree in Human Resource and Workforce Development Education program page on our website.

Online Learner Blog Home


Master of Human Resource Development

Advance your career by advancing your education. Learn how to design, manage and evaluate programs by applying skills in integrated training, organizational development, career planning and career counseling. Learn how to improve individual productivity and employability, while boosting job satisfaction and organizational effectiveness.

Program Page


Follow James Maddox on his podcast, Chatting About Change.