Resistance to change as a positive influencer: an introduction

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 12 October 2012



Downs, A. (2012), "Resistance to change as a positive influencer: an introduction", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 25 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Resistance to change as a positive influencer: an introduction

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Journal of Organizational Change Management, Volume 25, Issue 6

As Ford et al. (2008) point out, much of the research regarding resistance to change in organizations has focused on its irrationality and unreasonableness. This perspective pits change agents against change recipients, demanding a win/lose strategy to resolve the conflict. Resistance is portrayed as the enemy of change, even though dissent can play a positive role in many other areas of management (Schulz-Hardt et al., 2002; Nemeth et al., 2001). In this Special Issue of JOCM, we expand the dialogue surrounding the nature of resistance to change in organizations and explore its role in effective change management. What can we learn if resistance is treated as an essential element of change rather than something to be squashed? Piderit (2000) suggested that too much change scholarship has focused on the negative aspects of resistance, and in the process overly simplified it as a dichotomous event. She proposed a more complex definition of resistance involving emotional, cognitive, and intentional responses. Rather than defining resistance as “always bad”, i.e. negative responses in all three dimensions, Piderit (2000) contended that responses to change are rarely consistently all negative (or all positive).

Authors of papers in this special issue view resistance to change as a complex mixture of context, attitudes, and processes, such as described by Macri et al. (2002). They add to the literature by providing some unique perspectives on resistance through a multitude of management, communication, and behavioral theories. What appears is a portrayal of resistance to organizational change as a result of threats to identity. An individual’s identity is made up of personal characteristics and group membership. As Petriglieri (2011) points out, individuals value their identities; from their identities, individuals derive self-worth. Identity, though, is malleable; identity can be changed, exited, or entered. For example, as Petriglieri (2011) explains, exiting a professional identity is eased if the individual has an alternative identity. Despite the malleability of identity, individuals are reluctant to change identities, and identity threat can be defined as experiences that harm the value or meaning of identity (Petriglieri, 2011, p. 644). Papers in this Special Issue examine threats to the identity of a community of practice made up of radio amateurs; to a group of professionals working in the technical department of a European low cost airline; to members of a German high-tech firm who face an increasing number of foreign employees; to organizational members who navigate their multiple identities when faced with threats imposed by external pressures; to a Swedish manufacturing company where non-human actors have the power to resist and to create contrary change programs; and finally to members of high-reliability organizations (HROs). The final paper powerfully demonstrates the potentially positive value of resistance to change.

Francesco Schiavone, in his paper “Resistance to industry technological change in communities of practice: the ‘ambivalent’ case of radio amateurs”, portrays a community of practice (CoP) that is threatened by technological change. A CoP shares a passion about a topic and interact on an ongoing basis. Schiavone analyzes a case of resistance to technological change by “hams”, the worldwide community of radio amateurs. CoPs resist changing technology if new technology substitutes for their old technology-based “core” artifacts. However, as Schiavone explains, CoPs’ members can exploit new technology in order to adapt to industry technological change and, somewhat, to preserve the traditional implementation of their old technology-based practices. The case of radio-amateurs shows that community members are open to the use of new technology and innovations as long they (new technology and innovations) improve and/or optimize the performances of their old “beloved” product. Community “technology stewards” play a critical role. These community members work mainly on the social and learning conditions affecting the process of diffusion of innovation. Community members must:

  • re-organize their traditional channels of interaction and communication; and

  • change, somehow, their traditional practices of product fruition in order to implement and exploit the benefits of an ambivalent response to technological change.

Authors Jos H. Pieterse, Marjolein C.J. Caniëls and Thijs Homan, in their paper titled “Professional discourses and resistance to change”, investigate resistance to change as a consequence of differences in professional discourse. Professional groups working together in a change program might resist change if their identity as professionals is threatened. The authors investigate resistance by analyzing the participants’ language – i.e. their discourses. When different professional groups give different meanings to the change situation, these differences can result in resistance to change. Impaired mutual understanding can lead to negative affections towards members of other professional cultures. The authors provide a case involving the implementation of an ICT system for the technical department of a European low-cost airline. The case provides empirical data on the dynamics of resistance to change and exemplifies the clash of professional discourses between different groups of professionals. The results of this study emphasize the importance of making explicit the implicit, i.e. the definitions, assumptions, beliefs and expectations from groups of professionals involved in change projects. Paying attention to the language used during processes of sense making can reduce resistance to change.

Author Jasmin Mahadevan explores the emic meanings of resistance to change when dealing with an increasing number of foreign employees for a German high-tech firm in her article “Utilizing identity-based resistance for diversity change: a narrative approach”. Through narrative analysis, the author demonstrates that previous strategies to deal with diversity, including focusing on sameness and on a single language (German), now hinder diversity change. At the heart of her argument is the claim that identity-based resistance to change is largely the product of an inability to reconcile current conditions with past identities. She suggests that constructive changes in identity are possible when collective identities are challenged. The key is to understand that resistance to change is ultimately identity work, and to employ strategies that clarify and advance individual identity.

Managing the multiple identities of organization members is the subject of the next article by Pitsakis, Biniari and Kuin. In “Resisting change: organizational decoupling through an identity construction perspective”, the authors ask the question: “When an organization resists institutional (external) pressure to change (decoupling), how do the organization members respond?”. The authors suggest that resistance at the organizational level will lead to identity exploration by its members (also called “targets”) with three potential scenarios:

  1. 1.

    targets identify with the organization;

  2. 2.

    targets identify with the institution; and

  3. 3.

    targets identify with both the organization and institution.

Thus the authors advance the call for a more micro-level approach in organizational change scholarship. To support this approach, the authors created a multi-dimensional model that explores how targets navigate their multiple identities when faced with threats imposed by external pressures. They conclude that there are three possible outcomes:

  1. 1.

    targets who identify with the organization see this external pressure “as a threat to the organization identity” and therefore will support management’s decision to resist the pressure;

  2. 2.

    targets who identify with the institution will see the pressure “as a revelation to a new role”, which guides them toward resisting the organization’s resistance; which

  3. 3.

    targets who identify with both the organization and the institution see themselves as “change makers” after deciding that the external pressure is “an opportunity to redefine themselves”, and ultimately undermining management’s decision to resist.

The empirical basis of “Non-human resistance in changes toward lean”, by Jostein Langstrand and Mattias Elg, is a longitudinal study of lean production in a manufacturing company. During the period 2007-2010, the authors investigated the introduction of lean production in a large manufacturing company in Sweden. The authors point out that resistance is usually ascribed to some kind of threat perceived by individuals in organizational settings. They turn to actor-network theory and the inclusion of the physical environment to expand and improve understanding of resistance to change. Their research questions the identity of humans as agents of change and/or resistance. Not only human beings resist organizational change, and non-human actors also have the power to resist and to create contrary programs, i.e. anti-programs.

A non-human actor can resist change through an inscribed anti-program, and the authors provide several examples of anti-programs. However, the authors explain that they do not want to focus solely on resistance; their paper ends with a positive example of how non-human actors can facilitate change.

The final paper in this special issue on resistance to change is titled “Resistance in HROs, setback or resource?” by Daniele Binci, Corrado Cerruti, and Stefano Antonio Donnarumma. Citing Nord and Jermier (1994, p. 398), Binci, Cerruit, and Donnarumma remark, “[I]n physics, resistance is not always a problem. It is a barrier to moving something but an invaluable asset if you want to hold something in place or if you value friction as when generating heat or electricity is the goal”. Their research involves high-reliability organisations (HROs) and demonstrates the potentially positive value of resistance to change. The tasks of HROs include such work as reducing accident rates of fire, improving patient safety in healthcare, or increasing electric service continuity in power grids. Failures of HROs can be very expensive in economic and, sometimes, human life terms. The authors ask, “[D]oes resistance represent an organizational resource, rather than a phenomenon to counteract and to remove completely to make change happen?” To answer the research question, they analyze the role of resistance in a change project within a large Italian public utility. The announcement of the change generated a state of anxiety and fear about the project, and during the first few days the project was perceived with suspicion.

The authors examine climate for change and “mindful inertia” within the public utility company. Despite initial fear that the project would result in a reduction of resources (human and technological), participants in the change project ultimately realized that the main purpose was to change maintenance teams into high performing teams using resources in a more efficient way. Trust in change and involvement allowed the perception of the possible benefits of the project. Divergent perspectives and doubts provided the organization with a broader set of assumptions about how the organization is doing its work and how to improve it.

Alexis Downs, Donna CarlonGuest Editors


Ford, J.D., Ford, L.W. and D’Amelio, A. (2008), “Resistance to change: the rest of the story”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 33, pp. 362–77

Macri, D.M., Tagliaventi, M.R. and Bertolotti, F. (2002), “A grounded theory for resistance to change in a small organization”, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 15, pp. 292–310

Nemeth, C.J., Connell, J.B., Rogers, J.D. and Brown, K.S. (2001), “Improving decision making by means of dissent”, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 31, pp. 48–58

Nord, W.R. and Jermier, J.M. (1994), “Overcoming resistance to resistance: insights from a study of the shadows”, Public Administration Quarterly, Vol. 17 No. 4, pp. 396–409

Petriglieri, J.L. (2011), “Under threat: responses to and the consequences of threats to individuals’ identities”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, pp. 641–62

Piderit, S.K. (2000), “Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: a multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 25, pp. 783–94

Schulz-Hardt, S., Jochims, M. and Frey, D. (2002), “Productive conflict in group decision making: genuine and contrived dissent as strategies to counteract biased information seeking”, Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, Vol. 88, pp. 563–86