Change, Resistance, and the Organizational Immune System

By Gilley, Ann; Godek, Marisha et al. | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Change, Resistance, and the Organizational Immune System


Gilley, Ann, Godek, Marisha, Gilley, Jerry W., SAM Advanced Management Journal


The human body has built-in immune systems that protect it from foreign objects, such as strange bacteria and viruses. Generally, this is a good thing. But the immune system can also fail, or misjudge the nature of the threat, or attack the body it is supposed to defend. Likewise, individuals and organizations often feel secure with the status quo; they feel they are in control. Change can threaten this and is often strongly resisted, even when resistance may be detrimental, if not fatal, to the organization. To survive in a competitive world, managements can take steps to create a culture that accepts or embraces change.

Introduction

An abundance of research has attempted to explain the principles of organizational change, how to manage it, and why it is so difficult to achieve (Coghlan, 1993; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1996, 1995; Lawrence, 1954; Lewin, 1951; Nadler, 1981; Rogers, 2003; Zander, 1950). In spite of numerous theories, models, and multistep approaches to change, organizations continue to experience disappointing rates of success with change efforts. The inability to cope with change, whether posed by internal directives or external market forces, has been a factor in the demise of many firms (Dutschman, 2007). Research indicates that 33% to 90% of large-scale change efforts (including mergers) don't work or make the situation worse (Beer, Eisenstat, and Spector, 1990; Mourier and Smith, 2001; Muehrcke, 1999).

Why is change so difficult? Organizations possess a powerful immune system that defends the status quo and resists change (Gilley, Godek, and Gilley, 2009). This paper explores why individuals and, therefore, their organizations resist change by comparing individual and organizational immune systems (responses to change). It also offers strategies to help leaders work with their immune systems to reduce resistance and achieve change successfully.

Change

Much has been written about the multiple approaches and responses to change in the workplace (Beer et al., 1990; Judson, 1991; Kotter and Schlesinger, 1979; Morrow, 1999; Patterson, 1997; Zell, 2003). Most would agree that we live in a dynamic, rapidly changing world. Although some argue that change is nothing new, others suggest that it occurs at an increasingly rapid rate (Collins and Clark, 2003). Continuous, rapid change significantly affects organizational culture, functions, management, competitiveness, and success.

Change Models

Early models followed a three-step process that involved diagnosing and preparing an organization for change, engaging in change, and anchoring new ways into the culture (Beer et al., 1990; Kanter, 1983; Lewin, 1951; Tichy and Devanna, 1986). Lewin's classic model of change, for example, consists of unfreezing, movement, and re-freezing. Unfreezing refers to conditioning individuals and organizations for change, examining individuals' readiness for change, and establishing ownership. Momentum builds when stakeholders align to introduce change and plan its implementation. Movement, also called transformation, occurs when individuals engage in change initiatives. In the final phase, refreezing, individuals incorporate the change into their daily routine; new behaviors are solidified and ultimately deemed the norm.

Building on the early models, researchers have developed more extensive, multi-step frameworks that incorporate leadership, employee involvement and commitment, monitoring, rewards, and more (Kotter, 1996; Ulrich, 1998). Critics of the models cite their simplicity, linear methodology, and lack of attention to resistance. Figure 1 compares some of the popular models.

Individuals, Resistance, and Change

People are inherently resistant to change, and avoiding or resisting change is human nature (Bovey and Hede, 2001). Although this resistance is natural, failing to change can be deadly. Businesses that don't change disappear (Lewis, Goodman, and Fandt, 2001). …

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