Roots of Resistance to Chg LO1458

Whit Knox (
Wed, 31 May 1995 11:22:39 -0600

Forgive me if this is overlong, but I have been very interested in the
recent discussion of resistance to change on both the BPR-L and
learning-org lists. The discussion has been considerable, and very
elevated, and I have learned a lot from it. But some things have been
missing. First, the lapsed academic in me wants to categorize resistance
- are we talking about passivity, skepticism, cynicism, passive
non-cooperation, covert non-violent opposition, overt non-violent
opposition, or physical violence? (An interesting taxonomy - with as much
intellectual justification behind it as most in these areas, and at least
it looks scalar.) I have seen just about all of them except physical
violence and even that has to be considered if you recall the experience
of certain postal service managers.

But I think the real issue is finding roots of resistance, and here I
think the discussion has missed the point. We should be looking much
lower down in the hierarchy of needs - in the basic survival realm. I
would suggest that there are three primary sources for the bulk of the
resistance we see: resentment of implied criticism, a superior grasp of
reality, and fear.

First, your very presence in an organization can be interpreted as a
criticism. Naturally people may feel resentful of anyone brought in from
outside, free from the constraints of budget, staff, process,
infrastructure under which they have had to work, and free to suggest
improvements. They may feel that if the organization wants to know how to
do things etter/cheaper/faster, they should be asked, not assessed.

The second root of resistance is the fact that people aren't stupid - they
know that the BPR consultants, facilitators, trainers, whatever we call
ourselves, aren't going take the heat. Stop and think - even in our own
case studies there are horror stories of employees who cooperate, open up,
speak honestly, embrace change and the program, and suffer for it - public
humiliation and termination are the rewards in at least two of the cases
in the learning org fieldbook for example. Those people who seem to be
"resisting change" (which change is of course, all to their benefit,
right?) may know more about their environment, bosses, etc., than we do.
To them BPR may be yet another management fad, embraced by a corporation
that has adopted the principle of management by anecdote.

Finally, and most importantly, people are afraid, and have every right to
be. It is not without reason that BPR has become synonymous with earlier
euphemisms you may recall - rightsizing, downsizing, reduction in force,
"leaner and meaner", labor force rationalization, etc.. How many people
have been laid off, cut back, demoted, rif'ed, as a result of these
efforts? To many people the real end-result of the work we are talking
about is lost jobs. Why shouldn't people be afraid, and "resist change"?
Case in point: An organization I know recently exhibited rather odd
behavior in an initial assessment - missed appointments, totally
non-responsive interviews, strange equipment shortages. Very strange
until you consider that the manager who set the session up said "I think
we should look into this BPR stuff - I think we can cut 30% out of this
organization!" Now there's a great attitude, right? What would you do
under those circumstances? Eagerly embrace change, or silently resist?
Can you assure these "resisters" that their positions are secure? Under
these circumstances embracing change looks suspiciously like climbing over
the bodies of other potential victims to get into the lifeboat first. Not
a pretty image. It would be very interesting to measure the volume of
resume traffic in a group that is told they are about to start a
reengineering program (a potential study rears its ugly head).

Until you can laugh at the Dilbert cartoon where his boss says:

"Reengineering is simple. You start by questioning the
employees who would get fired if you succeed. Then you
use that objective data to design a more efficient
business process."

you don't understand.

-- (Whit Knox)