The Top 5 Types of Resistance to Change (Full Guide)

A full guide on the types of resistance to change you can encounter as a project manager

Share This Post

Change drives progress. If you want to be effective at driving change, you must know the types of resistance to change. In fact, people will try to resist change and sit comfortably in the status quo. They do so for various reasons, if you know them you will know which levers to pull to overcome this resistance.

Without further indulging, let’s dive straight into the types of resistance to change.

The 5 Types of Resistance to Change

Poor Communication

If you want to change how people behave or see things, you need to be crystal clear about your vision. In fact, you must be able to fully articulate it in a way that is clear and that it can be easily understood by others. This means that, potentially, you will have to tailor your message in different ways for different audiences.

Many changes fail because of poor communication. This is why we decided to put it first in the types of resistance to change list. If you are unable to communicate your vision, people will resist because of that: any other reason won’t even matter, you will not be able to get there.

Hence, the first step when driving a change is to have clear ideas. Then, you need to be able to articulate those ideas, express them clearly. The best way to do it is to slash everything that is unnecessary and keeps only what is strictly needed for your change. Most notably, the reason behind your change (the “why”) must be clear before you can even start thinking about explaining the “how”. A good approach for that is trying to find a single sentence that describes why your change is important.

If you are able to deliver that sentence with passion and arise interest, people will be eager to listen.

Also, poor communication is one of the types of resistance to change, but it can take many forms. Don’t focus only on communicating with passion, but also ensure everyone has the required materials easily available and accessible. This means sending follow-up emails, sharing documents, sending links to download presentations or meeting records and the like. As always, the principle is the same: less is more, do not berate people with excess explanation, make your content simple and easy to understand.

Types of Resistance to Change according to the Mauer model: change resistance due too poor communication, then change resistance because of emotional reaction, then change resistance because lack of trust
This is the first step in a 3-level model for change resistance.

In the Maurer 3-Level model, we can summarize poor communication as “I don’t get it”.

Emotional Reaction

Change is difficult at an emotional level. We need to realize what we are doing is not good enough, not anymore, and that we need to do something different. We need to retrain our brain, re-learn something, and just question ourselves. In other words, we need to break inertia and go outside of our comfort zone.

So, going on with types of resistance to change, we find the emotional reaction. If people get the change, and even intellectually understand the reasons behind it, this is the next resistance you face is emotional. In fact, in the Maurer 3-level model, this is the “I don’t like it” part.

I am sure you know that feeling when things just don’t feel right. This is what happens with most changes, to most people at least. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this type of resistance to change.

The best antidote to a negative emotional reaction is passion. If you drive a change with passion, and you show that you truly believe in it, people will find it easier to believe you. It is worth noting that you can’t fake your way to passion: only if you truly believe in a change, you can show passion for it – people will notice otherwise.

Of course, as a manager driving change you will need to pull many levers. Passion can go a long way, but it is not the only tool you want to use to deal with those types of resistance to change. Instead, you may want to use a mix of passion, authority, assertiveness, and listening. Each person will have a different reason to react negatively to your change, and you need to understand those reasons if you want to overcome the resistance.

Try to think to understand the implications of the change for each stakeholder involved, and even the implications of the status quo. Don’t be superficial, dive deep and investigate what are the impacts of the outcome of the change, but also of the process of implementing the change. Is there a particular step that is painful? How can you make it easier? You can answer all these questions simply by listening and asking precise questions to your stakeholders. Powerful questions to ask to root out the problem include:

  • Why do you think the current situation is better? (Don’t use the word “status quo”, as it tends to have a more negative connotation)
  • Do you have a different change to propose?
  • What is the thing you like the least about this?
  • What outcome do you want?

Of course, different changes may demand different and more tailored questions, but this is a great starting point.

Lack of Trust

We can move down the Maurer 3-Level model and reach the next in line among our types of resistance to change: lack of trust. Here, we mean lack of trust in the person or organization driving the change – that’s the “I don’t like you” part of the framework.

People may like the change, or at least be neutral towards it, yet they will not embrace it if they do not believe the person running the change is able to accomplish it. Among all the types of resistance to change, this is the hardest to overcome because people whatever you do you will be distrusted by the people around you, and so you are extremely limited in your possibilities.

The solution is simple, but not easy: build trust. I do not mean build consensus or be liked, I mean build trust so that people respect you and trust you can deliver on your ideas, promises and commitments. It may be helpful to start by identifying why people lack trust in you. For example, you may I have just come to a new organization as an outsider, and people may not trust you because of that.

This is common for organization in dire straits that bring outsider to do some changes and fix things. People are naturally averse to this, because it would be like admitting they failed and they need to call external support. That may be true or not, but they will start to think about the outsider as an antagonist, and oppose him any way they can.

The advice here is:

  1. State your interests clearly – say why you want the change done, and why it is important
  2. Start to push the change with the means you have – this may mean using authority or starting to force the change to get people in line. Beware, this is a risky strategy as it may backfire, but the idea is to build some momentum, so people know you are serious and there is no point resisting.
  3. Trust will build, eventually – if you are doing something good and determined about it, trust will build by itself eventually

Fear of Failure

We can now move away from the Maurer model and look at other types of resistance to change. Specifically, there are reasons that hold back even the people who are more enthusiast about a change. On the forefront of those we have: fear of failure.

We know that failing sucks, nobody wants to be a failure. We don’t want to fail, and we don’t want to be seen failing. So, we may be content of staying in a status quo where there is no risk, no failure, but also no reward. This is a dangerous feeling, because it can hold people back in a change: it can hold key people back.

This may be more evident in some cultures rather than others, for example cultures do not celebrating entrepreneurship and self-determination and with a larger focus on collectiveness, as there is more peer pressure to conform to the resto of the pack and never stick out of line.

To address and overcome failure-related types of resistance to change, you should make the change appealing and make people feel an urge to act. You must make them realize they are key in executing the change, and that they have a duty to do so. It may be a duty to the company, to the country, to yourself, or even to their inner values and principles, but it is something they just have to do. Highlight the rewards, and highlights that high rewards comes only by taking some risks. Make a statement.

You should try to move people. I particularly like the “Here’s to the crazy ones” commercial by Apple, because it carries a powerful and emotional message about thinking out of the box to push the human race forward. You should try to kindle the same emotion in your audience.

Unrealistic Expectations

Last among the types of resistance to change we will cover today we have unrealistic expectations. In an organization, we can summarize it with any of: having to do too much, with too little money, in too little time, or any combination of the three.

Among all the types of resistance to change we covered, this is the most insidious, the harder to identify and realize. This is because it is probably the only legitimate type of resistance to change, and so people cling to it even if their motivation for resisting is something else.

For example, if they did not understand correctly, they will probably be unaware of that. Hence, they may think that the expectation of reaching what they understood (and now what the change actually is) are unrealistic. Of course, here the real problem would be poor communication. If they have a negative emotional reaction, or even worse a lack of trust, they will probably say “sorry it can’t be done”, and the same story goes if they fear failure as well.

How do you distinguish when the objections raised from unrealistic expectations are legitimate? This is a hard thing to do even for the most skilled managers and leaders, and clearly an article read online will not give you all the solutions you need. Nonetheless, we can point in the right direction.

As a starting point, consider that people who want (or at least accept) the change will want it done, so if it is unrealistic, they will try to find alternative way to do so. Probably, they will require a slighter increase of timeline or of budget, or a small reduction in scope, but more or less they will leave the change intact because they understand its importance.

On the other hand, someone who does not want the change and that decides to hide behind “unrealistic expectations” will be more general and drastic, proposing no alternative or alternatives that are so wildly different that will be discarded for sure. If you plan the change to happen in one year, they will say something like “Yeah, maybe in 10 years that can be done”, if you think it will cost 1 million dollars they will go with “Yeah, maybe with 10 million it can be done”. Another top rejection is “Maybe Company X can do that, but here it will not work”. This is just a polite (not to say deceiving) way of saying no.

How do you overcome this type of resistance to change? In short, you don’t – if expectations are unrealistic, that’s what they are. However, you need to first ensure that expectations are genuinely unrealistic, and not politicized to hide other reasons of resistance. Once you are sure of it, try to understand why people feel they are unrealistic, and how much they are far away from reality. If they are not too far, with hard work from everyone, drive, passion, and enthusiasm you can probably reach them anyway. If they are really too far, maybe you should rethink your change.

You can use stretch goals for your change – goals that are just outside the realm of what is likely possible, but not too far that they are impossible to reach. Remember that, as humanity, we sailed to discover America and flew to the moon – just not with the same crew: you can stretch things, but up to a point.

Types of Resistance to Change in Summary

Putting the full picture together, there are many types of resistance to change, but the most common are: poor communication, emotional reaction, lack of trust, fear of failure, and unrealistic expectations.

More realistically, resistance to change will come from a combination of these fives, and never for a single one. Each individual will have its own personal combination of these types of resistance to change, and this means you need to cater to individuals to overcome resistance and drive change.

A good approach can be to assign responsibilities for your change. To do that, you may use a RACI Table or one of its alternatives. Also, if you want to learn more about change resistance, the Harvard Business Review has many great articles about it.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

Join the Newsletter to Get Ahead

Revolutionary tips to get ahead with technology directly in your Inbox.

Alessandro Maggio


Prime Opportunity

Project Management