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Organizational Immune Systems: Resisting Change

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? As wise as this saying can be for bigger picture items (for instance, the philosophy that drives the company), keeping wind in the sails of the organization requires constant maintenance. Higgs (n.d.) identifies the driving forces of organizational change as stemming from the need to constantly improve performance. Change, the author remarks, can come from investors, competition, globalization, society, technology, or the employees themselves, and yet, 70% of these changes fail. I would like to identify some reasons why organizations resist change and the prescribed actions to avoid it. Also, I will present concluding points discussing how well a transformational leadership style facilitates change in terms of the resistances and remedies identified.

Change Resistance

Authors such as Kotter (1995), Daft (1992), and Davis, Kee, and Newcomer (2010), highlight complex models of change that include items such as transparency in sharing vision, empowerment, and including the people who are affected by the change in the planning process. When there is a failure to understand and address such complexities, Woods and West (2010) remark that resistance can surface on two levels: within the organizational culture and within the employees. They liken the organization to that of an organism with an immune system ready to fight change. These so-called ‘immune responses’ include things like attribution error in outside influences (markets, legislation, economics), rather than looking inward at their own contributions to the problem. At the individual level, the authors remark that change spurs feelings of uncertainty and insecurity, as well as threats to their current status within the organization and discomfort in breaking from the routine. A leader who aims to facilitate change in an organization should be aware of what prescriptions exist to ease this resistance.

Easing Resistance

Whelan-Berry and Somerville (2010) discuss several “change drivers” that can be used by leaders to improve the chances of successful organizational change. These include ideas such as communicating a clear change vision, employee training and participation in the process, and making sure human resources as well as the organizational structure is aligned with the change. How often are employees kept in the dark until the last minute? Meetings that are supposed to serve as a platform for discussion are in actuality a conveyance of decisions made behind closed doors. When this happens, leaders in the organization need to be aware that employees are naturally concerned for their own well-being and constantly computing the cost to benefit ratio of decisions being made. Therefore, leaders should clearly iterate not only the organizational benefits, but personal benefits as well (Oreg, Vakola, & Armenakis, 2011). If the employees can see that they were considered, listened to, and clear reasons for the changes can be presented, resistance can be eased. Leaders that inspire trust are more likely to have positive reactions to change from their employees (Choi, 2011).

Furthermore, employees should in someway have their voices heard in the change process. This may seem like idealism, yet there are ways that HR and organizational structure can be designed to facilitate change resistance. For instance, change can often mean the adaptation of new ways of thinking or skills related to the job. Coaching and training programs need to be ready to bridge the gap, whether through managers or other supervisory staff. Finally, the organization needs to be prepared to identify and meet with those individuals who possess the strongest resistance. The right resistance managers are key to identifying and personally addressing these individuals. Those closest to the frontline workers are arguably the best suited for the tasks as they have experience and (hopefully) stable, trusting relationships with their staff members. This brings me to my next point: taking a transformational approach.

Transformational Leadership and Change

Transformational leaders exhibit attitudes and behaviors that are in line with easing resistance. DuBrin (2015) note that these leaders help employees to see bigger-picture concepts through the communication of vision, which was discussed as a desired anti-resistance factor. In addition, the author notes that transformational leaders correlate highly with agreeableness and extraversion, leading to enhanced teamwork. A clear consequence of this is more employee participation and involvement, which is described as the most “potent” way to reduce resistance (Daft, 1992). Finally, transformational leaders inspire workers to have a positive mood throughout the day (Bono, Foldes, Vinson, & Muros, 2007) and engage in more constructive behavior (Piccolo & Colquitee, 2006); creating a more positive employee view about the organization, and thus to the belief that the change will have positive effects (Choi, 2011). In summary, transformational leaders make good change leaders because their style is human-centered, which is a key action characteristic of change (Calvin, 2015).

Think about your organization. Are these steps taking in any way? What are the leadership styles and how do they affect employees in the organization? What are the levels of transparency? Are things "dictated or discussed"? These are just a few of the questions that can get organizations on the path to easing change resistance.

Feel free to give some answers to these questions in the comments below. I love to hear your thoughts.



Bono, J. E., Foldes, H. J., Vinson, G., & Muros, J. P. (2007). Workplace emotions: The role of supervision and leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(5), 1357.

Calvin, J. R. (2015). Leadership for Developing Empowering Culture in Organizations: Outreach Empowerment. Academy of Business Journal, 1, 7–15.

Cavazotte, F., Moreno, V., & Hickmann, M. (2012). Effects of leader intelligence, personality and emotional intelligence on transformational leadership and managerial performance. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(3), 443-455.

Choi, M. (2011). Employees' attitudes toward organizational change: A literature review. Human Resource Management, 50(4), 479-500.

Daft, R.L. (1992). Organizational Theory and Design (4th ed.). New York: West Publishing Company.

DuBrin, A. J. (2015). Leadership: Research Findings, Practice, and Skills (8th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Higgs, M. (n.d.). Change and its leadership. [Video]. Retrieved September 25, 2019 from

Kotter, J. P. (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, (March–April), reprint No: 95284.

Myers, D. G., & Smith, S. M. (2015). Exploring social psychology. New York, NY.

Oreg, S., Vakola, M., & Armenakis, A. (2011). Change recipients’ reactions to organizational change: A 60-year review of quantitative studies. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(4), 461-524.

Paschen, M., & Dihsmaier, E. (2013). The psychology of human leadership: How to develop charisma and authority. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Piccolo, R. F., & Colquitt, J. A. (2006). Transformational leadership and job behaviors: The mediating role of core job characteristics. Academy of Management journal, 49(2), 327-340.

Whelan-Berry, K. S., & Somerville, K. A. Linking change drivers and the organizational change process: A review and synthesis. Journal of Change Management, 10(2), 175-193.

Woods, S. A., & West, M. A. (2010). The psychology of work and organizations. South Western: Cengage Learning.

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