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Understanding People Related Barriers to Change: the key to success

Writing a workshop related to change this week brings to the front of my mind how challenging implementing with a team often even the simplest of changes can be and that the barriers to change can be complex and hidden.

There are a number of change theories (Kritsonis 2005 describes the most common 3) and they mostly focus on process or strategies for change which is of course important. What is also important though is to consider the people related aspects of change. These are the things that can get in the way for people, who are obviously resistant and also those who outwardly appear to be totally committed to the change and create conscious or unconscious resistance.

Torben Rick (see below for link to website) lists the following things that can get in the way

  • Misunderstanding the need for change
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear they won’t have the skills required to manage and / or implement the change
  • Low trust in the ability of the organisation to manage the change
  • Belief that the change won’t last
  • Not being consulted – opinions not sought
  • Poor communication
  • Exhaustion/saturation – too much change too often
  • Being connected or attached emotionally to the old way of doing things – all change is associated with loss and this can be a big one
  • Changes to routines – can be linked to the point above
  • Change in the status quo – will we be worse off?
  • Benefits and rewards of change are unclear

It is clear from this list then, that change often requires a shift in mindset not just behaviour (Scholl 2011)

The last 4 points above lead to another reason that people are resistant to change – a concept that Kegan and Lahey (2009) call Immunity to Change. This refers to the unconscious resistance to change that can and often does occur. Importantly, they say that resistance does not always reflect opposition or inertia. Rather it can be related to:

  • A person’s unconscious desire to maintain things the way they are
  • Their competing commitments
  • The assumptions they are making (often without being aware)

This immunity can apply to both individuals and groups.

In coaching we see this as secondary gain – our unconscious desire to avoid change because staying as we are benefits us in some way – even if at a surface level the benefit is hidden from ourselves and others.

A couple of questions for you to consider if you are currently implementing or trying to implement change (and who isn’t!):

  • How can you use this information about the human aspects of resistance to change to implement the changes you want and need to make as a leader?
  • How can you approach the changes you need to make differently using this information?

For more in depth information about the immunity to change work there is a great book called Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organisation see the second reference below.

Please feel free to contact me on with comments or questions


Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). The real reason people won’t change. Harvard Business Review, November, 2-10. Retrieved from:

Keegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Kritsonis, A. (2005) Comparisom of Change Theories. Retrieved from:

Rick, T. (2011). Top 12 reasons why people resist change. Retrieved from:

Scholl (2011) How to overcome immunity to change. Retrieved from:

With thanks to HETI and Dr Julia Bowman

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