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Why do stakeholders resist change?

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I guess some of my readers are thinking that this is like asking why day follows night, but recent research is digging deeper into the underlying causes.

For many years, I have used my Onion Model of Resistance to help me and my clients understand the different ways people resist change, and how project and change managers can deal with it. The six levels of resistance are like the layers of an onion: each one closer to the psychological heart of the problem, and each one being a little hotter and harder to handle.

But in researching The Influence Agenda, I discovered some fascinating research that led me to a deeper understanding of one of those six layers of resistance, when people are saying, effectively: ‘I don’t like change’.

The work of Shaul Oreg at Cornell University found, unsurprisingly, that some people are more resistant to change than others. But he also found four factors that reliably predict how much resistance a person will show towards a change.

Stakeholders are likely to be more resistant when they have:

  1. A preference for routine and familiar things
  2. A preference for sticking to a plan, once it is made
  3. A tendency to get stressed by changes in plan
  4. A discomfort with changing their mind

This leads me to identify four separate versions of the ‘I don’t like change’ response, each of which you can, as a change agent engaging with your stakeholders, respond to in a different way.

1.   ‘I don’t like a break in routine’

Focus not on the old routine ending, but on the emergence of new routines as a transition towards a new form of stability.

2.   ‘I feel uncomfortable with sudden changes’

Long lead times and careful planning will make even a sudden change feel familiar by the time it happens.

3.   ‘I get stressed at the thought of change’

The stress response arises from feelings of not being in control.  Find ways to involve the resistant stakeholder in the change process, to give them a real and meaningful sense of control.

4.   ‘Once I have made up my mind, I like to stick to it’

This ‘cognitive rigidity’ means that you should present change as being, as far as possible, consistent or a minor deviation from a pre-existing choice.  The less you present it needing a discontinuous change of opinion, the better.

Of all of the disciplines a project manager needs to master, handling resistance in a positive manner is, perhaps, the hardest. It is certainly the one that the people I speak to and train fear the most. Yet, like all things, with study comes understanding and, from understanding, flow concrete techniques.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan –


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  1. Mike Clayton
    Mike Clayton 09 December 2014, 07:25 AM

    I think Patrick (patw) is spot on in referring to loss aversion as a significant cause of resistance. Most change is a mix of good and bad from different stakeholders' points of view. Loss aversion means each stakeholder will apply a larger multiplier to the bad elements in perceiving their subjective impact than they will to the good elements, meaning that even a objectively net benefit can feel like a disadvantage subjectively.I aso agree that more and better stakeholder engagement - from day 1 and throughout - is a necessary step to improving things and that the toolset of Public Relations (PR) offers a valuable supplement to the tried, tested, but limited toolset that most project managers have to support their stakeholder engagement efforts. Indeed, in The Influence Agenda, I have drawn on PR and, more particularly, marketing tools as I tried to widen the options and resources for project and change managers in engaging with stakeholder.

  2. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 06 December 2014, 08:53 AM

    I have NEVER met anyone who does not like a change for the better.  The problem is most change is implemented by technicians who believe the benefits of the technological advance are obvious to everyone, and consequently virtually everyone fails to see the benefits. Certainly most business changes create winners and losers and the innate bias we all have towards loss aversion means the losers will react more strongly than the winners. However, if there is not a significant overall advantage from the change why bother? A change that causes more harm than good should be killed off ASAP. Where 99% of failed change initiatives fail is in stakeholder management and communication - too little, too late and largely ineffective.   A person's perception about a future unpleasantness is nearly impossible to change once it is formed. Conversely if there is a powerful desire for the potential benefit you will be pushed to implement the change quickly.. You need to build your army of advocates seeking the benefit before the change initiative even starts (or more accurately is see to be starting).The element that is missing from most projects and change management initiatives is adequate PR early in the overall delivery cycle to frame the overall stakeholder community expectations. For more on this see:   

  3. Mike Clayton
    Mike Clayton 28 November 2014, 10:46 AM

    Thank you, AdrianI too like Kotter's framework. I was at Deloitte when one of our partners, Dan Cohen, collaborated with Kotter on the follow-up to Heart of Change and presented at a conference. I think Kotter's emphasis on empowering employees is important here, because it reminds change leaders to hand over control over the changes to the people who are at the pointy end. This gives us our best chance of handling stress responses and allowing stakeholders to make the change work for them.

  4. Mike Clayton
    Mike Clayton 28 November 2014, 10:40 AM

    IanI too like the what if questions, and I'd split them out furtherWhat would happen if we make this change?What would happen if we don't make this change?What would not happen if we make this change?What would not happen if we don't make this change?

  5. Ian Cribbes
    Ian Cribbes 27 November 2014, 11:47 PM

    When dealing with a Change programme I often begin with the simple question "what if ......."  "What if we don't change"?  "What if we do change"?  I break the group into two teams, each to discuss one of the questions and present their deliberations to the other group.  I have found this to be successful in bringing to the fore many of the issues that need dealing with.

  6. Adrian Pyne
    Adrian Pyne 25 November 2014, 11:59 AM

    A good friend of mine's favourite saying is "and your point is?" Which, unfairly to Mike, was my first reaction to this piece.Surely "we all know" why people are resistant to change - in general that is. But what Mike has highlighted is evidence. When "we all know" something. Chances are "we" are wrong. So Mike's evidence is very useful, and is supported by research from neuroscience. Take Mikes way number 3: sudden change.Neuroscience shows that when surprised we immediately react in one of two ways. With fear or with pleasure. We can't help it, that is how our brains are wired. A reasoned response usually kicks in after this....although not always.And your point Adrian is? Well its this, stakeholder analysis can predict responses for both individuals and groups. Some of predicted responses are likely to be opposition in varying degrees and ways. If you know this then its possible to act to reduce the impact and hence reduce the risk.Which after all is why we do stakeholder management. What does this mean for change? I rather like Kotter's approach, you have to prepare the ground for change, then keep doing so to sustain the change. Thanks Mike