The Emerging Dynamics of Change: Resistance, Readiness, and Momentum

By Jansen, Karen J. | Human Resource Planning, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Emerging Dynamics of Change: Resistance, Readiness, and Momentum


Jansen, Karen J., Human Resource Planning


As more and more HR professionals are stepping into the role of change leader in organizations, an understanding of change dynamics has become increasingly important. Change is frequently characterized as fast or slow, enthusiastically endorsed or adamantly opposed, or as "on a roll" or "dead in the water." These characterizations highlight three distinct change dynamics currently receiving research attention: resistance to change, readiness for change, and building and maintaining momentum. Together, these change dynamics illustrate several recent trends in change research. First, outdated or previously unchallenged assumptions of these dynamics are being called into question. Second, current conceptualizations of these change forces emphasize dynamism and energy over stasis and tendency. Finally, in trying to better understand and manage change, researchers are refocusing on the overall process of change rather than on attributes of individual employees devoid of context. For example, we presume to know a g ood deal about resistance to change and how to overcome it as well as the importance of maintaining momentum during change. But recent work suggests we may know less than we thought about these concepts. This article summarizes the recent research on resistance, readiness and momentum, and explores how this information can be used to help change agents successfully navigate change.

Resistance to Change

Invariably, HR people are more acutely aware than anyone else when change is on its way. They're also aware that, no matter what the change, chances are that few people will like it.

D. Harrison (1999)

As Harrison illustrates, resistance to change has long been recognized as a barrier to organizational change attempts (Lawrence, 1954; Lewin, 1947). It encompasses a range of behaviors from passive resistance to active resistance or even aggressive resistance (Coetsee, 1999; Kirkpatrick, 1985; O'Connor, 1993). It is an outcome, a natural by-product of change, a fact of life. So what is so new about resistance and how can it be considered a change dynamic?

Surprisingly, the almost universally accepted axiom that "people resist change" has recently come under attack. For example, Kotter (1995) asserts that individual resistance is actually quite rare. Instead, he suggests that obstacles to change more often reside in the organization's structure or in its performance appraisal or compensation system, which are not yet aligned with the desired new behavior. This observation shifts our attention from individuals to the greater organizational system within which the change is occurring.

Bartunek (1993) raises a second challenge to the popular notion of resistance by pointing out that virtually all discussions of change take the change agent's perspective. In this way, any behavior that is not in line with the change agent's attempts to create change is perceived as resistance. Is it possible, then, that consultants, change agents, and HRD professionals create the very resistance they are trying to overcome? Past experience and knowledge of the current change scenario subtly color a change agent's perceptions of the individuals and circumstances surrounding the change. If the change agent makes a fundamental attribution error by deciding that older workers, women, line workers, etc. are likely to resist change, then he or she may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most recently, Dent and Goldberg (1999) urge us to dispense with the phrase "resistance to change" altogether. They note that people do not necessarily resist change, but instead resist the loss of status, pay, or comfort associated with the change. These distinct factors, as well as a consideration of methods for circumventing them, are lost under the umbrella of "resistance to change." In addition, Dent and Goldberg point out that Lewin's original conceptualization of resistance is as a dynamic system force rather than an individual predisposition and that recent research is returning to a system-wide level of analysis (e. …

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