dan fiehn
dan fiehn

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Innovation is essential for long-term business survival. However, research indicates that up to 70% of all digital transformations embarked on fail because people resist the very things necessary for success.

Resistance is rarely irrational and comes from a perspective that makes sense to those involved: our personal experiences, interactions, status, and security shape our views. However, sometimes our outlook blinds us from seeing the bigger picture.

The following is an extensive guide on why people are resistant to change and how to overcome it. It is written for anyone involved in the transformation process, particularly leaders looking to maximise digital benefits. The post is divided into three parts: what drives our reaction to change, 12 critical scenarios that spark resistance, and finally, implementation strategies to increase success.


A Familiar Story Of Disillusionment

Consider Tom, a 37-year-old senior manager who leads a sizeable operational department of over 200 people.

Tom is a highly driven individual and is keen to leverage digital technologies to transform his customer-facing team. He has been waiting for this opportunity for years, and his spirits are flying high as he begins on this ambitious multi-year digital programme.

Tom’s enthusiasm is infectious. So, it is no surprise that his senior managers get behind the initiative. They also see the value and recognise that association with such a successful programme will be good for them personally.

The senior team gives little thought about how this technology may impact their staff. The hundreds of daily decisions that occur and those small relationships and inter-connections on which individuals consciously and subconsciously measure their self-worth and performance.

The staff’s general view is that the management team haven’t consulted them. A feeling of restlessness and uncertainty soon sweeps across the department. Such business programmes have been seen before and failed. Faced with this situation, individuals and then teams start resisting the change. It has become disruptive and intrusive before the programme has even begun, and rumours abound.

The senior team is discouraged, and the more negativity they encounter, the more committed they become. However, failing to understand and address the staff’s concerns has unintentionally triggered strong resistance to the programme. Soon, Tom’s manager questions his ability to lead the programme. Within six months, the programme is brought to an end.

Leaders like Tom consistently misjudge this gap in perspective has on digital programmes. It is essential for those implementing digital transformation to understand the forces at play and adopt the appropriate strategies to maximise success.

So why do we resist technology change despite the obvious business benefits?

What sparks resistance


What Drives Our Reaction To Change?

REACTION “…..something done, felt, or thought in response to a situation or event.”

Changes at work stimulate solid emotional reactions within us.

Underpinning our reaction is the relationship that we all have with our organisation. This relationship consists of a complex mix of shared obligations and commitments, both stated and implied.

Formally, we evaluate our role in an organisation by the basic tasks we’re required to do. Think – job description, which outlines the specifics of the position, the level of support given to undertake the job, how performance is appraised and how this impacts pay and benefits.

Psychologically when things change, we weigh up whether the efforts required to continue to do our job are worth the remuneration and recognition received. Our relationship with our boss at this time is essential. Their willingness to recognise a well-done job underpins our commitment to them and the company.

Socially, we gauge an organisation’s culture by its practices and align with our values. Consider – the actual rules that determine who gets what and whether managers practise what they preach.

Any change perceived to threaten any aspects of those above will trigger a reaction.

So, what are the top trigger moments which invariably lead to resistance?


12 Critical Scenarios Which Sparks Resistance

There are 12 key reasons why organisational change is resisted, and these can be grouped into three key categories:

1. why are we changing?

2. how is the change being implemented?

3. what is the impact of the change?


Why are we changing?

1. Vision

Having a clear vision of future benefits and capabilities is vital. It serves to motivate people and acts as a touchstone showing people what’s in it for them and their team. People react negatively to transformation if they perceive a detrimental impact on their work and personal lives.

2. Politics

Politically, individuals may seek to block a transformation to prove the decision to embark on the journey is wrong. People may also try to prevent change to show the person leading is not up to the task or a perceived loss of power. Such individuals will be highly motivated in seeing the change effort fail.

Political resistance is the most challenging type to overcome. Seek positive steps to counter and create win/win scenarios where possible. Be mindful that it is difficult to recover once leadership credibility is lost.

3. Trust

Trust involves faith in the intentions and behaviours of others. People will negatively react to any change which they believe is unfair.

By failing to see the big picture, leaders often need to employ the right tactics, sending conflicting messages and acting incoherently, thus unintentionally derailing the change initiative. Trust is fragile, and leaders may need time to rebuild confidence for better results. Mistrust will doom an otherwise well-conceived initiative to failure.


How is the change being implemented?

4. Strategy

A sound strategy is indispensable to implementation success.

Transformations rarely fail because of bad design but rather from an unrealistic approach. Leaders may push too hard on the wrong things or not drive hard enough on the right things. The timing and method of implementation will increase the feasibility of the overall transformation and reduce resistance.

People deliver projects, so more time needs to be devoted to understanding the human impact.

5. Capacity

Leaders often overestimate how much change an organisation can do at any time. A sound assessment of an organisations readiness for transformation is fundamental for success.

Factors such as how much transformation is required, benefits realisation, resources, budget availability, and interdependencies with other initiatives will all have a bearing. The size of the culture gap, maturity level within the programme delivery team, and success/failure history with transformation projects all count.

6. Early Success

Celebrating early success is imperative to maintain momentum during a transformational programme.

Changing culture takes time, and individuals need to be continuously reminded of the benefits to keep them from falling back into old habits. Early wins keep stakeholders on board and put naysayers at bay. They also provide early lessons learned, enabling necessary adjustments.

Critical activities need to be analysed and made visible to key stakeholders from the start. Begin with solid and quick wins and slowly ramp up through carefully thought out pilots and phased rollouts. When defining the sequence, consider transforming a business as a long run endeavour.

Quick wins should be clearly defined, time-bound, and owned by specific people who have clear accountability.

7. Rewards

Employees must know what the organisation expects of them in their jobs. Reward systems and transformation objectives must be strongly linked. Individuals need to see the connection between their work and its overall goals.

People will resist change when they do not see any benefits in return for their efforts. A lack of such a reward system will likely impact team motivation and ultimately erode support over the long term.

Therefore, rewards have a pivotal role in demonstrating an organisation’s values, commitment to employees, and performance. Often reward systems will need to be altered/reworked in some way to support transformation.


What is the impact of the change?

8. Communication

Ongoing communication is the most critical tool for handling resistance to change.

The fewer people who know about the change, the more fearful they become. People will naturally fill the void of missing information and sabotage change efforts. There should be no surprises.

9. Culture

The most successful transformations are those best able to align their culture to their strategy. But transforming workforce culture is complex and means undoing unspoken ‘rules’, challenging unconscious behaviours, and determining what people do when no one tells them what to do.

Where transformation programmes don’t address the cultural experience that supports change, people start having a hard time believing the vision.

Adopting a culture driven transformation model is key to identifying what aspects need support or stopping/adding to achieve the vision. When appropriately used, culture can be the enabler for leading change. Leaders should seek to use the positive aspects of the culture to ease pain and stress.

10. Status and Security

People will resist anything they view as harmful, especially if they perceive their role is being eliminated or reduced. From their perspective, change is detrimental to their place in an organisation, and they will naturally resist.

11. Capabilities

Significant change can cause teams to doubt their capabilities to perform. Worried they cannot adapt to new work requirements and fear of failure; this could lead to resistance.

12. Influence

Belonging to a group is a strong need in the workplace.

If change threatens social bonds, peer pressure kicks in, and some resist. Team leaders may fight change to protect their team and look after co-workers. It can be an extreme emotion in which individuals are willing to sacrifice their role due to their strong feelings to protect others.


Implementation Strategies To Improve Success

Once you understand the cause(s) of resistance, you can then employ the appropriate implementation strategies to maximise success.

Many different Change Management models have been developed, addressing various aspects of resistance.

Change Models fall into two broad groups – “change as a project” and “change as a regular part of continuous improvement.”



The first sees change as a rational, strategic process where the organisation chooses a new course of action and adapts to change.

An organisation would use the project approach when significant changes in a company strategy are required—for example, changes affecting the organisation’s structure and economic performance. The central aspect is implementing top-down leadership, focusing on the elements that enable the objectives’ rapid achievement.


Continuous Improvement

The second sees change as evolutionary and seeks systemic improvement to increase efficiency by changing the established norms and values.

The company and its employees develop the ability and willingness to change. This work is carried out continuously, without time limits, regardless of specific projects. This approach is aimed at the long-term benefit and development of the company and is not a solution to any particular problems.

The central aspect is implementing bottom-up changes, which focuses on the organisation’s behavioural elements. The application is most likely in the absence of urgent problems that require immediate action.


Stages of Acceptance

The move from resistance to acceptance goes through stages. There should be ongoing support that reflects those stages.

Stages of acceptance

The first reaction is common disbelief and a strong need for accurate information. Later, people go through several emotions- anger, loss feelings, and depression. During this time, people need a different kind of support.

Finally, when people reach the acceptance phase, they need to make the necessary changes and may need support. There should be clear communication of the vision, the desired changes, and the advantages that the change will bring at all stages.


Impact on People

Managing the impact on people is an area many managers find problematic.

First, a leader must draw attention to the need to change and establish the context for how individuals will be impacted (directly and indirectly).

Second, they initiate a process where employees can revise and buy into new terms.

Finally, they seek to establish new formal and informal rules. Systematically creating explicit links between employee’s obligations and a company’s necessary change outcome.

Without such leadership, employees will remain sceptical of the vision for change and distrustful of management. Management will likewise be frustrated and hampered by the employee’s resistance. Leadership, communication, training, planning, and incentive systems can all act as levers that can move significant obstacles with a minimum effort when applied correctly.


A Story Of Achievement

Armed with this information, what could Tom have done differently?

Tom is keen to leverage digital technologies to transform his customer-facing team. He first directs his team to map out the technical and people benefits which will be changing. The managers start understanding the required adjustments to the operating models, performance indicators and governance structures.

Tom’s enthusiasm is infectious. He captures this passion in an inspirational vision of how the department will look in the future. The senior team set about enthusiastically communicating this farsightedness at every opportunity. Concise and engaging staff forums and focus groups provide an excellent platform for the managers to ask powerful questions to monitor people’s views and reactions. Concerns are dealt with empathetically and decisively.

The staff’s general view is that the management team listens and takes on board their comments. A feeling of inclusion soon sweeps across the department. People outside of the core project team start putting forward change ideas. Peer group support networks form as people naturally embrace the new ways of working.

The senior team is encouraged, and the more positivity encountered, the greater acceptance of change across the department. Tom flexed the implementation strategy by understanding and addressing the staff’s concerns, maximising benefits. The programme was acknowledged as a phenomenal success, and Tom and his team received high accolades for their skilled implementation.



A leader driving digital transformation has to influence others, create a compelling vision, communicate, empower people, and build teams to be successful.

Transformation involves moving individuals and teams from the known to the unknown. Rather than immediately giving up habits and beliefs, it takes time to make sense of new ideas and adjust, and resistance is a natural part of the change process.

The number of change models in existence illustrates just how complex resistance to change is. Those leading transformations require understanding these varying perspectives to adopt the most effective implementation strategy.

Previously, I’ve written about the 5 BASIC things which successful people do exceptionally well when delivering digital transformation. I believe that these characteristics are more important than ever whilst leading the human impact of change.

So, if you’re about to embark on a digital transformation programme, remember focusing on people ahead of technology will boost digital benefits.

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Alternatively, please leave any comments, as I would love to hear from like-minded people at the forefront of driving digital transformation.

Exciting times!