Enough with Change Resistance Already!

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.”

This is an often quoted view of Peter Senge. Unfortunately, many people stop at regurgitating this quote without realizing he also talked about how the conditions in the system manifest the symptom of change resistance in people. This Linked In thread had enough references to this quote to rile me up enough to write this post.

Sure this is a great quote from an incredibly smart person, one who’s teachings I agree with completely.

But what does it mean?

“People resist being changed”

What are they resisting? Resisting feeling stupid because some consultant is telling them they’re doing <whatever thing the consultant is being paid to implement> is wrong?


A while back I posted about my reaction to another company buying the company I was working for. I felt threatened, I was afraid of the un-certainty, and I was real pain in the ass to work with. I’m sure you’ve experienced a similar change in your life.

It irks me to see so many discussions that attempt to put a binary answer on such a complex question.  My question is: Why do people react the way they do to change? And, what can I, as a facilitator of change, do to help?

There are plenty of possibilities to explore the symptoms of resistance:

  • David Kersey’s Temperaments: some people find change exciting, some find it scary.
    • SP (Artisans): like to change things NOW, love the excitement and love to jump in and solve problems even if they don’t exist yet!
    • SJ (Guardians): Value stability, like the status quo because it works for them, like to explore every mind-numbing detail in order to understand the change
    • NF (Harmonizers): Only want to make sure everybody is ok while the change is happening, don’t want to upset the herd.
    • NT (Rationals): Value a logical approach to change, the change is only awesome if it satisfies their need to link changes to outcomes.

These are sweeping generalizations, not the rule. There is no rule. Here’s more sweeping generalizations about how each temperament responds to the stages of Satir:

  • Satir Change Model Stages: Old Status Quo, Foreign Element, Chaos, Transforming Idea, Practice and Integration, New Status Quo.  This model explains how people respond to change physically, psychologically and logically.
    • SP (Artisans): live for the chaos! Love the excitement!
      • Will drive others nuts by inventing problems that might not exist so they have “something to solve”
    • SJ (Guardians): fight to preserve the status quo because it’s familiar
      • Will drive others nuts (especially Artisans!) because they don’t want to dive into chaos until they know every possible detail of the change
    • NF (Harmonizers): Want to help people through the pain of chaos
      • Will drive others nuts by wanting to make sure everybody is ok. Will want to not implement a change if it’ll upset the ‘herd’
    • NT (Rationals): Fly through the change when it appeases their logic and moves on to the next change before anyone else has integrated the first change.
      • Will drive others nuts by possibly appearing like they’re treating others as idiots if they don’t understand the logic behind the change.

So, can you imagine having a team with people who have competing preferences trying to make sense of an Agile transformation? How about if you have all crazy people like me (Artisans) keeping the organization in a constant state of chaos?

So what about other models?

  • Kubler-Ross Stages: Shock, Denial, Frustration, Depression, Excitement, Decision, Integration
    • SP (Artisans):  Might not experience shock at all, they’ll think it’s awesome and progress through these stages of grief quicker than others.
    • SJ (Guardians): May linger in Denial and Frustration longer while they struggle to make sense of the change. Once they hit Excitement, others have moved on to the next change.
    • NF (Harmonizers): May be hit hard by Frustration and Depression because of how they observe other people’s reaction to the change.
    • NT (Rationals): May linger in Frustration while they wait for others to reach the same level of understanding about the change. They may also interpret the change different to appeal to their own sense of logic.

Again, more sweeping generalizations, not the rule. Let’s make this more complex and look at how our brains react to change.

  • SCARF (David Rock): How the brain reacts to threats. Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness. David’s work shows how the brain responds to rewards and threats. A violation of any of these 5 motivators creates chemical reactions in the brain. To simplify it, cortisol (the stress hormone) is secreted under stress, dopamine (the hormone released when I devour a yummy burger!) is secreted when we feel satisfied. You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. Our brain’s reaction magnifies our temperament. As the saying goes, people “revert to type” when stressed.
    • Status: Regardless of temperament, if the change threatens your title, or status, your will appear to resist the change. For example, if my client hires another consultant for a second opinion, I’ll be mad initially, but then I’ll think about it and realize it’s probably a good idea!
    • Certainty: This is the desire for stability. If we can’t paint a picture of the future this change will bring, we will perceive this to be a threat.
    • Autonomy: This is the desire for freedom. If we feel the change will constrain us, we’ll feel threatened by it.
    • Relatedness: This is the desire to “fit in”, so to speak. If this change puts us at odds with others, yep, it’ll generate a threat response.
    • Fairness: My favourite! Living with a Harmonizer is tough! The number of time I hear “that’s not fair!!!” in my house is astounding! If we don’t think we’re being treated fairly, all bets are off. This motivator trumps the other 4.

If this isn’t enough data yet, consider that we all have different motivators, irrespective of our temperaments. Changes and events in our lives increase and decrease the SCARF motivators.

I value Relatedness and Autonomy more-so than the others, according to the self-assessment.  If the threat response to  those motivators is more powerful than the reward response to the other motivators, I will not be a happy camper, even though my temperament (SP) generally likes change.

Ok, take a deep breath.

Suppose I’ve gone through a similar change already. That is, I’ve gone through an Agile Transformation at my previous company and it really sucked. I will have reached the conclusion that:

Agile = Sucks.

Given the belief I’ve attached to that, it’ll trump my temperament and my motivators and the model that explains that, is Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference:



  • Rung 1 (Facts): We adopted Agile and missed our first release
  • Rung 2 (Filtering Data): Agile caused us to miss our release
  • Rung 3 (Attach Meaning) : Agile can’t possibly  work
  • Rung 4 (Assumptions) : If we adopt Agile at my new company, it won’t work because <insert experiences from old company>
  • Rung 5 (Conclusions) : Agile never works.
  • Rung 6 (Beliefs) : Anyone who thinks Agile works is stupid.
  • Rung 7 (Actions) : There is no way I’m going to support “doing Agile” <at my new company>

If you’ve stuck with me thus far, you probably have some insights into the symptoms you’ve observed.

What else can possibly make change more complex?

  • what if someone is going through a divorce?
  • what if someone got into a fender bender on the way to work?
  • what if someone has an opposite temperament compared to their boss? (or team member?)
  • what if someone’s stupid cat kept waking them up at 4am every day and they’re sleep deprived?

But wait! Lewin’s Un-freeze, Change, Re-freeze model implies everyone is moving through change at the same rate. So does Prosci’s ADKAR with it’s linear approach to change management. How can they work as advertised when there are so many factors that affect how people experience change?

Change is incredibly complex, and there are so many factors, and models, to use that can help you make sense of what you see, and one change process certainly might help as a mental model, but not at a tactical level.

If you’re a facilitator of change, YOU need to understand how to recognize patterns in how people process change while considering their temperaments, their past experiences and what motivates them.

AND you have to recognize that every single person you work with in an organization is unique and are processing change differently.

There’s no magic here, sometimes when I’m working with people with someone that exhibits  Guardian preferences, I spend more time helping them build a bridge between traditional and Agile practices. Sometimes when I’m working someone with a similar preference to me, I have to “switch my preference” to provide a counter-point so they understand what their Gaurdian-preference co-worker is going through.

But most of the time, I’ll get them both in a room and figure out a compromise they can both live with.

This is why you cannot put a budget and schedule on change, there’s no way to “ensure” everyone is progressing through the change at the same rate and same intensity.

Early on in my career I understood none of this. All I knew was that my head was sore from running head-first into a wall far too often trying to push change. Now I realize it isn’t “the other people”, it’s my approach.

Sometimes I need to know when to push, and when to lay off by recognizing symptoms people exhibit when change is introduced.

Of course, that’s my stance based on my experiences, my temperament, motivators, and my own cognitive biases.  Oh yeah, and I didn’t even touch the hundreds of cognitive biases that affect how people respond to change. Maybe another day.