Change is the movement away from its present state toward a desired future state. Organizations are constantly changing, but organizational change typically refers to the large-scale changes that are sometimes needed to reset the organization. Inevitably, change processes will meet with resistance. This paper will examine how resistance can be a driver in the change process, rather than an obstacle. There is a substantial body of literature that discusses how organizations can overcome resistance to change. One tactic is to accept that some resistance is rational, and reflects legitimate concerns — no manager should assume that his or her initial change tactic is bulletproof. The organization can benefit from managerial discretion in working with resistance to improve the change process.
Fleming and Spicer (2007) underline power and resistance as two movements, feeding off of each other. They focus on the struggles that occur as part of the change process. Managers seeking change will run into entrenched interests and resistance based on challenges to identity. This resistance will manifest in a number of ways: compulsion and refusal, manipulation and voice, domination and escape, and subjecting and creation. Key to the success of an organizational change effort will be the ways that managers deal with power struggle within the organization. This work combines well with theories of power that argue there are several different forms of power within the organization. Managers who are driving the change process will find that resistance from powerful sources within the body of stakeholders will force them to utilize different forms of power in order to ensure that the change goes through. Overt resistance, therefore, provides an opportunity to refine the ideas in the change, and to increase the power of those who are seeking to drive the change.
Kotter has studied organizational change for many years, and made significant contributions to the subject. In earlier work, Kotter (1979) argued that individuals can be trained to handle change. An organization, therefore, that is subject to constant change will deal with change better than an organization comprised of individuals with less change experience — those individuals are more likely to become entrenched interests. Resistance, Kotter (1995) argues, can make an organization stronger if it is able to meet the challenges thrown up by the resistors. Management needs to be able to identify the different types of resistance and handle them accordingly.
Buchanan and Badham (2008) also make the point that resistance can be a source for change. When organizations are static, because they are driven by interests who see change as a threat to the order that they have created, resistance can initiate and drive a change process. The change agent needs to be politically skilled, the authors note, as they will be seen as agitators. Indeed, they are acting in that role, to ignite the change. As change agents in such a scenario are inevitably viewed as a threat to the routine order of the organization, they need to be able to skillfully engage resistance but also raise their points with the power brokers in the organization. The resistance exists to get your issues on the agenda, but affecting true change for the organization will require political skill as well.
There are examples of resistance to the status quo as a means of changing organizations. Certainly figures such as Mandela, King or Gandhi stand as exemplars of the concept. Lars Kolind has sought to adapt the concept more for organizations than nations, but the principles remain. The status quo needs to be challenged on the functional level, in order to put the change on the agenda. Kolind’s issues are with respect to challenging bureaucracy in general, so that the organization is not driven by strong entrenched interests, but rather is driven by change-makers. Disruptive change within an organization will also require the use of other forms of power — persuasive or expert power can serve as an effective counter to formal power. However the change is brought about, it needs to be driven by the use of power in order to convince those who are steering the organization that their interests are better served with the change. Whether this is by convincing them that the problems will end with change, or that the organization can move forward more effectively with change, either style can be effective.
Change in organizations is created by both internal and external drivers. A lot of the literature on organizational change focuses on how change can overcome the inevitable resistance. But there is a growing body of understanding that resistance itself can be the driver of change. Where there is resistance to the status quo, there is an implicit power struggle. The use of different forms of organizational power can bring about meaningful change, even if the face of strong organizational inertia, by setting the dialogue within the organization and forcing change upon the bureaucracy.
Buchanan, D. & Badham, R. (2008) Power, Politics, and Organizational Change: Winning the Turf Game. London: Sage. (pbk)
Fleming, P. & Spicer, A. (2007) Contesting the Corporation: Struggle, Power and Resistance in Organizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kotter, J. & Schlesinger, L. (1979) ‘Choosing strategies for change’, Harvard Business Review 57(2): 106-114.
Kotter, J. (1995) ‘Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail’, Harvard Business Review 73(2): 59-67.
Thomas, R., Sargent, L.D., & Hardy, C. (2011) Managing organizational change: Negotiating meaning and power-resistance relations, Organization Science 22(1): 22-41.
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