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Resentment, Resistance, Rejection: Demystifying the Fear of Change

Nothing changes if nothing changes. The only constant is change. All great changes were preceded by chaos…Wise and witty sayings on the subject of change that have become popularized and shared through the ages. Yet, many of us continue to baulk at any organizational change initiatives, despite the evidence presented by leaders who tell us that if we don’t move forward and break from the past, we risk becoming irrelevant.

So, what lies behind the resentment, resistance and rejection? Why is the fear of change so palpable that some individuals will steadfastly refuse to accept a new reality and prefer adhering to old paradigms when the writing is on the wall?

Let’s decipher the cause of intransigence by getting to the heart of the matter. Resistance to change can be better understood when we realize that making logical arguments to achieve buy-in often fail because the process of letting go isn’t logical. It’s emotional.

The following example serves to demystify the root cause of the fear of change:

An organization decides that it’s time to rebrand and create a new identity. External surveys indicate that customers no longer relate to the company’s image and their industry sector has new competitors vying for market share. To celebrate the launch of their new brand, staff are requested to attend a launch event wearing new company attire distributed to all departments in advance.

One employee steadfastly refuses to participate, choosing to dress in the old corporate t-shirt instead. Her peers and managers note her “defiance”, but she remains unmoved and unwilling to accept the change.

In Dr. Spencer Johnson’s timeless tale Who Moved My Cheese, we followed the adventures of Hem, Haw, Sniff and Scurry and their reactions to the relocation of their regular supply of cheese. We discovered that: “The more cheese is important to you, the more you want to hold onto it.”

We can draw some important lessons from Dr. Johnson’s fable that is highly applicable for the newly branded company and how they can respond to their employee’s intractable stance. This begins by addressing the fear of loss.

Loss of purpose

A break from the past can represent an uncertain future. It isn’t unusual for individuals to feel that change threatens their sense of purpose and meaning at work. The desire to hold onto how things were is a natural reaction. Although the process isn’t simple, when the sense of loss is validated first, people feel heard and understood.

Loss of legacy

Changing one’s corporate image is symbolic. A brand gives an organization an identity. Therefore, it isn’t surprising to find that some staff have a strong sense of pride and attachment to their company’s legacy, especially for those who were personally involved in developing the previous brand. Even if you decide “the cheese is getting old”, acknowledging the importance of heritage and history can go a long way. 

Loss of familiarity

Becoming “cheeseless” can threaten one’s existence, yet we often fight change because we prefer remaining comfortable. Adopting a new system or process can be intimidating, and if a greater benefit to changing the status quo isn’t immediately evident, the desire to “do what we have always done” becomes the default position.

If you are the designated change agent, your ability to recognize why your colleagues are recoiling and retreating from new initiatives is the pre-requisite to expecting buy-in and acceptance. These three characteristics of loss are very personal. Therefore, an empathic approach toward individual sensitivities can be a powerful first step in the change process.


Michelle Ray (@michelleraycsp) is a Vancouver-based business keynote speaker, leadership expert, author and founder of the Lead Yourself First Institute .


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