Are you familiar with that situation? You want to change things for the better and launch a new initiative for taking your organization a step ahead. But instead of applause and support from your team, you just earn skepticism and open or passive resistance. Recent research has found a surprisingly simple reason for why people resist to change in organizations.

Many reasons for people to be resistant to change have been explored before, for example, fear of the unknown, fear of job loss, or fear of not being able to fulfill new demands, seeing no sense or no improvement in the new ways of working, or just plain managerial incompetence that manifests itself in poor communication.

A more surprising additional key reason for resistance to change was revealed in a recent ethnographic study in a UK manufacturing company that had just been acquired by a US conglomerate: the prioritization of “real work.”

How “pragmatic resistance” looks like

One of the researchers worked at the company at the time when the management of the US parent firm introduced a new way of standardizing its operating systems across its subsidiaries. The researcher observed many different forms of “pragmatic resistance” during the change initiative. People just did not attend meetings, refused to volunteer for tasks related to the initiative, ignored the new guidelines or failed to report errors as required by the new system. It was a very subversive form of resistance, without any substantial open opposition.

When the researchers asked the people for the reasons of their resistance, they often received the answer that the change initiative was “taking [people] away from actual work.” The initiative was seen as an additional burden that distracts them from what they considered as their “real” tasks and responsibilities. So actually, people resist change not only because they fear something or because they do not see any sense in a change initiative. They also resist for a very simple reason: they just want to do their work!

Key takeaways for smart leaders

  • Next time you launch a change initiative, make sure that you organize it in a way that your team members still feel that they have enough time for their “real work.”
  • Maybe also try to discuss with them how actively taking part in the change initiative can help them and others to make their “real work” even more effective in future.

Research reference: This blogpost is based on the findings of the following research study: McCabe, D., Ciuk, S., & Gilbert, M. (2020). ‘There is a crack in everything’: An ethnographic study of pragmatic resistance in a manufacturing organization. Human Relations, 73(7), 953-980. 

Illustration: © Eva Kobin

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