Getting Comfortable with Resistance to Change


As a Fatigue Manager, I am sure you have encountered your fair share of resistance to change.  It can come at you from all directions, managers at your level, your supervisors, executives and leadership teams, and of course, all your shift-workers. Resistance can show up in all sorts of reactions like simply questioning the logic or science you are using to guide your initiatives or outright anger….I’ve been on the "pointy end” of a few angry reactions, some have been scary and even felt threatening. 

I really don’t like conflict; but, I can’t shy away from it if I am trying to help organizations push for change in fatigue management.  I don’t think I will ever be able to embrace the resistance, but I have become more comfortable with it.  I have even managed to make it through the few awkward shouting matches that have come up in management/shift-worker discussion groups.   

One approach that really worked for me was to learn about resistance to organizational change and to try to categorize it whenever I encounter it. I find this helps me better understand everyone’s reactions. 

I also try to keep in mind that resistance to change is a natural reaction and a part of the process of adaptation to the change. Plus, it can have positive benefits. It can get us to really examine our proposed change, and, from a higher level perspective, resistance stops organizations from implementing every new process, product, or technique that comes along.  Without a natural resistance reaction, organizations can be without direction and may never prosper as they gravitate to every new idea.

Change is also viewed differently for executives and managers than it is for supervisors and employees and this can influence the type of resistance expressed by each group. For executives and managers, change is seen as an opportunity to unite business strategy and vision, a professional challenge, and as a step towards career advancement.  Supervisors and employees tend to see change in terms of workload, often with increased burdens with little reward[1].

Keeping these points in mind, helps me remember that I should not view resistance as an irrational negative force which must be overcome, but rather, understood.

There are quite a few different ways to categorize the types of resistance to organizational change. I like using Kanter’s original typology[2] which divides resistance into two main types, passive and aggressive, and two sub-types, immediate and delayed. 

Passive Resistance

To employ passive resistance, people quietly repress their concerns and quite simply, do not adopt the changes wholeheartedly.  They may even attempt to strategically sabotage the change efforts by such techniques as reducing productivity and increasing errors. This form of resistance is difficult for Fatigue Managers to identify because, by nature, it is hidden from them.

Aggressive Resistance

Aggressive resistance is much easier to identify because people will often express their concerns and intentions directly to the Fatigue Manager.  Forms of aggressive resistance can include recruiting co-workers and mounting counteractions to the change, removing a work group or labour union’s participation in the fatigue management initiative, firing the Fatigue Manager and others supporting the initiative, or tendering a resignation.

Immediate Resistance

Most change efforts encounter resistance at the beginning and, as mentioned above, this is a natural, and possibly positive, reaction to change.  Both passive and aggressive forms of resistance can occur immediately after a new stage of the change process has been entered or immediately after a change has been implemented.

Delayed Resistance

People will often delay their resistance until after they can study the ramifications of the change.  This is an important concept for Fatigue Managers to keep in mind because it implies that your work must continue beyond any suggested conclusion of the change effort. Both passive and aggressive resistance can also manifest in a delayed time frame.

“Resistance should not be viewed as an irrational negative force which must be overcome, but rather, understood.”


[1] See for example:  Strebel, P.  (1996).  Why do employees resist change?  Harvard Business Review, May-June.

[2] Kanter, R. (1983).  The change masters.  New York: Simon and Schuster.