Employee interpretations of change: exploring the other side of the resistance story.

AuthorKulkarni, Vaibhavi


Resistance is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon that has been widely discussed in management literature, and more often than not, change scholars have identified employee resistance as a crucial factor that influences the success of change implementation. For the last several decades change research has focused on ways to reduce or eliminate resistance, with the primary assumption that it is dysfunctional and therefore thwarts change implementation (Lewis, 2011). Most of this work has been done in the Western context, with several researchers pointing towards the dearth of change management and change resistance studies in the Indian context (Bhatnagar, Budhwar, Srivastava & Saini, 2010). Bezboruah (2008) called for a need to understand employee resistance in India.

The concept of resistance was first introduced by Lewin (1947), and since then, it has been defined as a multifaceted phenomenon that leads to unanticipated delays, costs and instabilities in implementing change (Ansoff, 1988); behavior that attempts to maintain the status quo when the organization wants to change the status quo (Zaltman& Duncan, 1977); willingness to engage in deception (Shapiro, Lewicki& Devine, 1985); or as a reactive process that signals power relations and organizational members opposition to initiatives taken by other members (Jermier, Knights & Nord, 1994).

Needless to say, most of the times resistance has been described in negative terms--it either prevents organizations from carrying out change implementation or creates challenges that make this process more difficult. Resistance research can be broadly divided into two approaches: the first which provides a more conventional, traditional view of resistance recognizes it as a barrier to change processes and studies it primarily from the change-agent's perspective. Researchers taking a contemporary view of resistance question the traditional 'change agent centric' perspective of change implementation and argue for greater focus on employee perspective. Researchers have begun to believe that resistance can provide valuable insights from employees and raise legitimate concerns about the change process itself. However, both these views have primarily been shaped based on Western concepts of change as well as resistance. Unfortunately, studies examining Indian perspectives regarding resistance are few and far in between. This article attempts to close this gap by taking a contemporary view of resistance by examining it from the employee perspective, and doing so in the Indian context.

Since resistance has been considered problematic for change implementation, most studies focus on attempts to 'manage' resistance. In an effort to understand (and prevent) resistance, significant body of resistance research has focused on identifying reasons that lead to resistance and thereby managing resistance.

Factors Leading to Resistance

Schein (1993) found change resistance to be a ubiquitous phenomenon in organizations. Researchers have identified a wide variety of factors that provide explanation for resistance: organizational culture, organizational politics, lack of resources, lack of commitment, insufficient information, poor timing, lack of trust, uncertainty, fear of unpleasant consequences (Dent & Goldberg, 1999; Labianca, Gray & Brass, 2000), psychological support, gradual and flexible participation of change (Fernandez & Rainey, 2006), loss of status or power, lack of reward, disruption of routine (Gilley, Godak& Gilley, 2009). With the emergence of such wide variety of factors, some researchers attempted to classify them in to broad categories. Largely, literature suggests that resistance can be because of individual or organizational factors, though focus seems to be more on individual reasons for resisting change. This focus is not surprising because change researchers have acknowledged that it is not possible to change organizations in meaningful ways unless the employees change (Poole & Van de Van, 2004).

Individual Factors: Effective change implementation assumes that employees begin believing differently, thinking differently and behaving differently, thus placing emphasis on individual level acceptance of change. For instance, change acceptance and resistance has been linked to individual personality characteristics (Oreg, 2003). In his study, Oreg developed a resistance to change scale based on personality attributes such as intolerance, reluctance to lose control, cognitive rigidity and dispositional tendency.

Resistance literature also emphasizes understanding the cognitive processes underlying employee resistance. Lau and Woodman (1995) tried to provide a cognitive explanation for employee reactions to change by using the concept of individual schemas. They posit that schema can help people make sense of information in the environment and when organizations undergo change, members have some interpretations and expectations of these changes. Understanding change schema can help us examine employees' current change orientation, anticipate expectations about future change and identify the possibility of change resistance beforehand. Similarly, Labianca, Bray and Brass (2000) found that change recipients' inability to revise old decision making schemas and enact new schemas can lead to resistance during change process. They found that resistance was instigated by employee self -interest and was further motivated by skepticism regarding management's commitment to the new change schema. Another popularized assumption about resistance is that emotional responses have predominantly negative implications for change implementation and scholars have associated them with irrational resistance (Kiefer, 2005). To a large extent, negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, stress and insecurity have been perceived to be an individual problem, wherein the employee lacks the maturity or ability to appreciate change (Carr, 2001).

Organizational Factors : Though several scholars have argued that resistance to change is also built into organizational factors (Burke, 2002), there are relatively few studies looking at macro level reasons for resistance. Waddell and Sohal (1998) identify systems, processes, climate and culture as factors causing a state of inertia that leads an organization towards greater reliability and predictability which, in turn, makes it difficult for agents to implement change. There has been some focus on understanding organizational culture and capabilities to anticipate and manage change resistance (Jones, Jimmieson & Griffiths, 2005).

Top management support and commitment to change are expected to play a crucial role in change acceptance, since skillful and strategic leader can successfully bring together disparate employees and overcome obstacles (Fernandez & Rainey, 2006). Employee resistance is also likely to be high when it is perceived that organizational resources and capabilities do not support the proposed change. Since planned change involves redeployment or redirection of resources, lack of resources can lead to higher stress levels and even neglect of organizational functions (Burke, 2002). Finally, factors such as broken agreements, violation of trust, communication breakdown and misrepresenting of situation have been found to be major causes of resistance by scholars (Reichers et al., 1997; Ford, Ford & D'Amelio, 2008).

Embedded Assumptions

These studies mentioned in the earlier sections provide ways of preventing resistance by identifying factors that can lead to resistance, but do not truly engage with the notion of resistance in a meaningful way. There is little interest in understanding how recipients make sense of this process; researchers are primarily concerned with efficient accomplishment of management goals, leading to preventative prescriptions for overcoming resistance.

During recent times, however, researchers have begun to question the conventional wisdom that people always resist change. An oft repeated critique of negative approach towards resistance is that almost all discussions of resistance take place from the change agent's perspective. Therefore any response that is not in keeping with the change agent's expectation is perceived as resistance (Bartunek, 1993). This one sided approach towards understanding change resistance leads us to conceptualize resistance as a problem that is invariably caused by the recipient and it is up to the change agent to manage or overcome this problem. Such 'change agent centric' view, according to Ford et al. (2008), assumes that an account of change resistance is an accurate report provided by an unbiased source presenting an objective reality. Human resource managers and change scholars have paid scant attention to the perspectives of those facing the change and overwhelmingly, research takes the perspective of the management implementing the change. Further, Piderit (2000) draws our attention to managerial tendency of associating resistance with recipient inability to accept change and fundamental attribution error. Change agents...

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