Resistance to Change: Aspects of Cognition – a #WorkingOutLoud post

I’m sharing another significant chunk of new writing today as I take good strides forward completing the third draft manuscript for the new book on organisational change, and how we build the Socially Dynamic Organisation. I’m #WorkingOutLoud as i do so, sharing writing at draft stage, so forgive typos and glitches. This is behind-the-scenes work. The section that I’m sharing today covers four of the 16 Resisters of change: we look at the sphere of consequence, the importance of belonging, the perils of uncertainty, and the impacts of denial.

The Sphere of Consequence

In terms of where this sits in the overall book, this is the fifth out of seven sections: in section 1 I introduced the notion of the Social Age and what change means, in the second section we look at the three manifestations of change, in the third I introduced the Dynamic Change Curve, in the fourth I introduced stories of how organisations try to change, and in this section we look at foundations to set change in motion. The sixth section is substantially written and covers the Dynamic Change Framework itself, which is an eight step route to enable change, but more of that to follow.

Title: Cognition

Let’s look in more detail at the four aspects of cognition as resistors of change:


Our sense of consequence can inhibit or restrict our thinking and action, indeed, for the purposes of this discussion let’s consider the sphere of consequence, the way that it surrounds and envelops us. In any given action we are surrounded by a sphere of consequence: either one that we impose ourselves, or one that is opposed upon us by aspects of the environment.

For example, I was walking over to a friends house last week when I heard a drunk couple sat at the bus stop making quite loud and unpleasant comments about homosexuality. These comments weren’t directed at any individual, but rather allowed and inebriated conversation between the two of them. What did I do? I did nothing. I walked on by. I can justify this in many ways: whilst the conversation offended my liberal views, there was nobody else within earshot, so I let it go. Or we could go with an alternative explanation: had I intervened, there was a likelihood it would have ended in conflict, and with two drunken interlocutors, it could easily got out of hand, so having understood the consequence, I behaved accordingly, and did nothing.

In this case, I imposed the consequence upon myself, I created the sphere around me, and then operated within it.

Let’s take another example: I’m in a rush to get on the train, there is a big queue for the ticket machine. Do I push past to the front? Of course not. I understand the high social consequence of those actions. It would be rude, and rudeness is a social judgement on the actions that we take. So I impose a tight sphere of consequence around my own actions, and don’t do it.

What about within an organisation? Let me share another story: friend works in an organisation which was trying to be more innovative. They asked people to share their ideas for innovation, and yet when she did so, she was seriously reprimanded by her manager are not talking the idea through with her first. Effectively she was reprimanded for doing the very thing which the senior leaders had asked her to do, something that she judged to be deeply unfair. In this case, she had no sense of consequence when she took the action, but subsequently consequence was imposed upon her by manager: the net result, she is left less willing to help the organisation in the future.

Next time, she will be operating within a tighter sphere of consequence that has been imposed upon her.

Then consider things like social media policies: the formal rules of an organisation also impose a formal sphere of consequence upon us. In many ways these are the most clear and obvious, although rules are often disproportionately applied. Sometimes rules are employed hard when it suits the organisation, and more softly when they’re less worried, so the tightness of the sphere consequence can be uncertain.

Where there is uncertainty, if we are wise, we often take a conservative approach, which exposes us to little risk.

In a resistant organisation, consequence can be heavily applied, which leaves us little space to operate within. That heavy application may be deliberate by the organisation, as it is within an organisation that exerts excessive control through formal hierarchy. But it may also be implied, giving us a second degree of constraint, whereby we impose a sphere of consequence upon our self because we believe that the organisation will treat as harshly. So the organisation loses twice: it loses the engagement of the individual, and it loses the benefit it would have reaped from that engagement.

Much of the discussion about consequence relates to visibility and consistency: we can reap benefits by explicitly labelling the consequence that applies in different spaces, perhaps by labelling those spaces as learning spaces, reflective spaces, or performance spaces, with a clear understanding of which type of consequence applies and which space. But for this to work, we must be consistent with how that consequence is applied: inconsistent application of consequence leads to a constrained organisation.

I worked with one organisation which had a clear policy that you could not identify that you worked for that organisation on social media in any way. And yet, in parallel to that, I counted 17 different parts of the organisation which operated Facebook groups which they encouraged people to join. So the way that consequence was applied was inconsistent: the policy said you could not engage, but the activity said that you should engage. It’s no surprise that their key question was, “how do we generate engagement?”. Sometimes we engineer our own lethargy and weakness.

What you need to do:

• Consider how the sphere of consequence exists within your organisation in different contexts and in different spaces. Is it clear to you? Remember, if it’s not clear, we will likely take a conservative and defensive stance.
• Is consequence applied evenly and fairly? Work with leaders to help them understand the impact of consequence and importance of fair and consistent application.
• Explicitly signpost what consequence applies in particular spaces, and honour that commitment.


Within an organisation we are not simply bound together by formal rules and contracts, indeed in my own Landscape of Trust research, I saw that 75% of people say their primary bonds are bonds of trust with people, only 25% felt that their primary bonds were contractual.

Change involves not simply the movement of infrastructure and evolution of hierarchy, it often involves shifts in the social fabric of the organisation itself which can challenge these bonds of trust and even identity. We should not underestimate the power of the social bonds of belonging, and the risk and resistance that can be triggered if we try to force them into new shapes: whilst social bonds are movable and pliable, they are governed by the individual not by the organisation, and all too easily at our peril do we trigger that type of resistance.

There are different facets we need to consider around the resistance of belonging. One point is that no matter how quickly we are able to institute the formal aspects of change, we need to take account of and do everything possible to facilitate the considered movement of social bonds. We are familiar with something of this problem when people get promoted within a team: they have to evolve some relationships away from being peer-to-peer, through to being leader to teammate, and if we’re honest, although roles change, the persistence of personal relationships means that these new roles are never fully adopted. Indeed the newcomers into a team can be significantly disadvantaged when they lack previous peer-to-peer relationships that have persisted into new formal structures. Effectively some people are governed and led to formal relationships of power, whilst others have the consideration of pre-existing socially equal relationships, which moderate or negate the application of formal power. It’s not that it’s impossible to overcome these things, but by no means can we take it for granted, and I suspect that in the increasingly confused and jumbled intersection of our formal and social lives, it will become ever harder to separate formal from social, work from play.

Indeed, it may become ever harder for organisations to change as the nature of the relationships held within the organisation become increasingly socially grounded: if you are friends with someone on Facebook is almost certainly harder to reprimand them formally.

You may notice a theme emerging around some of these topics: they are often two-edged swords. Some aspects of a particular feature of communities can enable us to change more effectively, whilst in a different context, they can make us more heavily resistant. So a sense of belonging, and strong bonds of trust, within a change community, may help us to build a highly Socially Dynamic Organisation, while similar strong bonds of trust, deeply held personal relationships, and existing power structures, May reinforce the resistance of an organisation, as it becomes ever harder for an individual to re-forge those relationships.

There are other ways in which a sense of belonging can act as a resistor of change. Confirmation bias is a tendency to interpret new information in a way that reinforces or confirms existing knowledge. In other words, even with the application of new information, we can become ever more certain of those things that we already know to be true. How is this manifested? Well, one simple way is that as new messages come out we simply believe that we are already doing those things. So in a story of change, we hear the organisation describing the future state it wants, and we simply believe that we are already there. We talk about the behaviours needed, and it will simply confirm in our minds we are already acting excellently. We may actively resist evidence to the contrary, because that evidence is at odds with our bias.

When we come on to look the Dynamic Change Framework later in this book, we will see that utilises belonging to reinforce and amplify change, and it does so by allowing the community, and the individuals within it, to have true ownership and an authentic voice within the shaping and delivery of the change.

Belonging is a powerful force: it can hold us deeply in one space, or help to amplify us rapidly into a new one, but it is most certainly not something that we can take for granted.

What you need to do:

• Consider types of belonging, and the nature of belonging, in the design the change journey. Factor in the time and activities, the support and resource, to help individuals and communities find a new space.
• Understand confirmation bias and mechanisms to help individuals define and own there own change journey (we will talk more about this when we look at individual Agency later on).
• Recognise that belonging sits in the gift of the individual: if we want people to belong to our change community, we will need to create the space for them to do so. You cannot demand it.


Clarity is a good thing, but uncertainty can be equally useful, or at least can be if appropriately signed. It’s often a temptation to close down ambiguity, to remove uncertainty, to plan out the route for the whole journey before we share any part of it. And yet this route plan that we share can often be fictitious: it’s in the nature of change to introduce risk and uncertainty, and pretending that we have all the answers start can be both disingenuous and risky in its own right.

If we view uncertainty as a bad thing, if we hide uncertainty away as if it is preferable to certainty, we run the risk of simply stating aspiration and losing our connection with reality. This may impact on the authenticity and credibility of what we say and do.

When uncertainty exists for individuals, we tend to move towards safe spaces, and that is the biggest concern when it comes to change: the minute that change is in the air, people retreat and nest in safe spaces, ready to observe the uncertainty, but keeping their feet dry.

This forms a vicious loop: uncertainty can lead to nesting behaviours, and yet glossing over uncertainty with aspirational stories can lead to inauthenticity and ineffective behaviour. To counter the resistant effects uncertainty, we may need to signpost it clearly: these are the things that we are clear about, and these are the things that we still need to discover.

We can take this into account as we develop the board structure of a change journey: if uncertainty can cause people to bolt to safe spaces, then we can adjust the pace accordingly, and ideally involve the community in surfacing the challenge itself. If we present a challenge as a fait accompli, we will generate a reaction, whilst if we work together to surface challenges, we can tackle them together too.

This approach sits nicely in a co-created change journey: the things that we know can formed the broad scaffolding, in the spaces that we create can be used to make sense of the details and fill in the uncertainty. Indeed, the ability to exploit and react to uncertainty as a key reason to build the Socially Dynamic Organisation, because it is not only better able to operate in uncertain times, it can positively thrive within them, because uncertainty create spaces and opportunities for individuals to demonstrate expertise and to shine.

What you need to do:

• Be clear and realistic of those things we are certain about and where there are spaces for uncertainty.
• Consider how uncertainty can cause people to move to safer ground, so engineer the pace and tempo of the journey accordingly.
• Signpost uncertainty clearly, and be unafraid to do so. Uncertainty is not weakness: it’s strength.


Say it isn’t so. Denial can be a powerful force. Ignore what’s going on around us, and it may well go away. In the context of change, that may be true. If enough people fail to engage, the change effort will fail. Or of circumstance changes, the change programme may be abandoned: experience of an organisation teaches us that this is often the case, so good survival technique is to ignore or deny the change and simply wait for it to go away.

Indeed, with so much change in the air, denial can be a valuable strategy. We can wait for other people to lead the charge, and then, if it looks like this one is going to stick, we can catch up later.

Or if we disagree with the messaging, by ignoring it, we can hope or rely on the fact that maybe nobody will challenge us, and we will get away with it. It’s not such a bad strategy, but at scale leads to great inertia, and is commonly felt within organisations, especially ones that fail to engage the community in the change effort.

There are other ways that denial can be triggered: it may be that the types of change we are looking at simply take people out of their comfort zone, or will lead to a loss of power, status, or permanence, that they are ill-equipped to deal with. It may be that people lack the knowledge or experience to understand what is required of them. It may be that they are actively opposed to it, because whilst it is good for the organisation, they can see no good outcome for them.

In some ways, there is little that we can do about denial, although one route is to ensure that there are safe spaces for conversations, so that we can help and support people in making sense of the change, and even practically support them through the change.

What you need to do:

• Recognise that denial at scale can scupper a change effort: consider ways to recognise when this is happening. How will you know if you have momentum?
• Ensure that there is clear support for people to make sense of the change, including clear support through change.
• Add clear signposts through the change journey: it will be okay for people to remain disengaged and uncommitted whilst they are making sense of things, but to pass beyond the signposts there must be clear signs of engagement. We need some lines that must be crossed along the way.


About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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4 Responses to Resistance to Change: Aspects of Cognition – a #WorkingOutLoud post

  1. Pingback: Resistance to Change: Aspects of Cognition – a #WorkingOutLoud post – Miluramalho’s Blog

  2. Pingback: The Culture of the Socially Dynamic Organisation | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  3. Pingback: Dimensions of the Socially Dynamic Organisation | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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