Kotter & Schlesinger: Resistance to Change

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  • 0:03 Kotter & Schlesinger's Article
  • 0:50 Why People Resist Change
  • 3:46 How Managers Can…
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education Administration.

Change happens. If you've ever been part of an organizational change, you know that most people aren't big fans of change. In this lesson, we'll learn one perspective of why that is and how managers can deal with resistance to change.

Kotter & Schlesinger's Article

In 1979, two professors named Kotter and Schlesinger from Harvard Business School wrote an article titled 'Choosing Strategies for Change.' Almost immediately it became a must-read for business school students and managers experiencing changes in their organizations. Nearly four decades later, it continues to be one of the most popular and oft-cited articles regarding why people resist change and how managers can try to help people deal with change in a positive way.

In the article, Kotter and Schlesinger introduced four primary reasons why people struggle with change and six strategies managers can use to help people deal with the change. In this lesson, we'll introduce and briefly discuss both of these lists.

Why People Resist Change

We're all happiest and most content in our comfort zones. That's why it's called a 'comfort' zone - because we're comfortable. But organizations - especially companies seeking to make a profit - are in a constant state of change, adapting to the market, meeting customer needs, and reacting to competitors.

These companies that are reacting and changing are made up of people, and changes can be complicated by the fact that people are resistant to change. Unpopular changes can drag on for months and even years, continuing to distract employees, managers, customers, and vendors, all because the people involved in the change are resisting. Here are the four reasons Kotter and Schlesinger suggested people resist change:

  • Parochial self-interest
  • Misunderstanding and lack of trust
  • Different assessments
  • Low tolerance for change

As we introduce each of these, they make sense. Again, people are generally comfortable with what they know and happy with their situation. Change means uncertainty and, generally, human beings try to avoid uncertainty. To shed a little more light on each of Kotter and Schlesinger's four reasons, let's define them.

Parochial self-interest occurs when someone believes that change will lead them to lose something of value, such as money, power, or status. For example, when a CEO presents the idea of a new vice president of business development, that idea might make the vice president of marketing and the vice president of research nervous. They may wonder if the new position means a loss of power or less say in decision-making situations. Even if they are right, those aren't reasons not to make the change. The hardest thing to remember about organizational change is that's made to benefit the organization, not a specific individual.

The second reason, misunderstanding or lack of trust, is very common. Some people just tend to make more out of a change than it really means. Something as simple as the physical move of a department from one part of the building to another can be given the meaning that that particular department means less or is going to be downsized. Even without any other suggestions, change plus uncertainty plus the rumor mill can certainly lead to misunderstandings.

Different assessments refer to the varying perspectives people have throughout the organization. Obviously, a CEO or high-level manager is looking at the company differently and with more information, than a member of a support function department. So when a CEO introduces a change that impacts a department, there are at least two different perceptions or assessments, and each group will see the change differently.

Finally, some people have a low tolerance to change. There are many people that can struggle with anxiety and stress when they experience change. Actively avoiding it in their personal life, and to some extent in their professional life, is possible, but change can't always be avoided.

How Managers Can Encourage Change

Just because employees may resist change doesn't mean managers can't help them cope with it. Kotter and Schlesinger also suggested six things managers can do to encourage or help employees cope with change.

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