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Guest Thinkers

Resistance to change


Rosabeth Moss Kanter

, who is perhaps our nation’s leading expert on

organizational change, outlines ten reasons that drive resistance to educational

change initiatives:

  1. Surprise, Surprise! Decisions or requests that are

sprung on administrators and teachers without notice.

  • Excess Uncertainty. Not knowing enough about the
  • change will result in the “Walking off a Cliff Blindfolded” syndrome.

  • Loss of Control. Feeling that changes are being
  • done to, rather than done by, those affected.

  • Loss of Routine. Concerns that change will require
  • administrators and teachers to question familiar (and comfortable) routines and


  • We’ve Seen This Before. Expectation that the
  • initiative is temporary and it will stay incomplete, meaning the best strategy

    is to lay low and not contribute to success.

  • Loss of Face. Change implies that the former way
  • of doing things was wrong. Some administrators and teachers may feel embarrassed

    in front of their peers or staff.

  • Concerns About Future Competence. Educators can
  • question their ability to be effective after a change: Can I do it? How will I

    do it? Will I make it in the new situation?

  • Ripple Effects. Change in one area can disrupt
  • other projects or activities, even ones outside of work.

  • More Work. Organizational change often increases
  • workloads.

  • Sometimes the Threat Is Real. Change often creates
  • real winners and losers, and people worry about where they will end up when the

    project is complete.

    [this list is from]

    What strikes me about this list is that these are quite rational concerns for

    most school change initiatives. As leaders and change agents, we have to

    acknowledge the validity of these concerns and address them appropriately if we

    are to achieve the desired changes.

    Kanter also notes that people are motivated by three key factors:

    • Dissatisfaction. This can be either positive

    (e.g., “We could be so much better”) or negative (e.g., “Things are really

    terrible”), but people are rarely motivated to make things different when they

    are perfectly satisfied with things as they are. However, recognize that it

    is often more difficult to persuade people to act because of a brighter future

    than because of a current crisis. This fact may  be the result of the

    concreteness and visibility of a crisis. Use this knowledge to your advantage,

    by making the picture of the possible better future as visible and explicit as


  • High probability of success. When people perceive
  • that change is unlikely to be successful, they are rarely motivated to act on

    their dissatisfaction. This is why small successes in the early stages of a

    project can be very important in shifting people’s views. Remember, the

    probability of success is really a question of perception, which is why [change leaders] spend time persuading people to see things differently. Moreover,

    an innovative idea can transform someone’s view immediately, by

    making plausible what had previously been almost unthinkable.

  • High value of the change. If the end result is not
  • worth the expected effort, no amount of dissatisfaction or belief in the

    probability of success will motivate people to action. Furthermore,

    the result has to be worth the effort to each individual person. If the

    change will result in a loss of authority for someone or in a pay cut, that

    person will certainly not be motivated to make the change happen. As a

    leader, you have to be able to see the change from the point of view of those

    affected by it. People who see a brighter future – for themselves and for the

    organization – that is worth working for will be most likely to join the


    These key motivating factors are interrelated, and their effect is

    multiplicative, not additive. Leaders of change must keep all three motivating

    factors at the forefront of their minds as they work to shift people’s


    Finally, I’ll leave you with this paragraph from Kanter:

    Even if there is some motivation to change, there is also always some inertia

    in the present. This can be both psychological (comfort, familiarity, routines

    and rhythms, etc) and operational (more work, uncertainty about end results,

    etc). So it’s useful to think in terms of a “hurdle rate” that has to be

    exceeded before someone will be inclined to act on his or her own (intrinsic)

    motivation. Often it is effective to couple these intrinsic motivations with

    extrinsic factors – carrots and sticks. These extrinsic factors can be used to

    help overcome resistance. Just remember that reliance on these alone, when

    intrinsic motivation is not present, is notoriously dangerous: as soon as the

    carrot has been eaten, or the stick removed, that’s the end of the


    Sidenote:IBM has

    invested millions of dollars in the creation of the Change Toolkit, a free online

    resource for K-12 educators. The Toolkit is based on Kanter’s work and is

    intended to help education professionals be more effective at leading and

    implementing change. The Toolkit contains a variety of resources to help leaders

    implement a thoughtful, systemic approach to school change efforts and

    successfully address common challenges and barriers. I use the Toolkit quite a

    bit in my own teaching and encourage you to check it out (did I mention it’s



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