What Can Schools Learn from Resistance to Change?

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership September 17, 2015

Even the most effective educational reform effort usually encounters some resistance. Resistance to change refers to any behavior furthering the maintenance of the status quo in the face of pressures to alter it. Much of the literature on change identifies resistance as a crucial element of reactions to change. Change may threaten and disturb us, but it is necessary for growth.

Resistance occurs when there is a lack of knowledge, information, skills and managerial capacity. Behavioral resistance is emotionally centered and derives from the reactions and perceptions of individuals and groups in the organization. Whatever its roots, it can inhibit, disrupt or even block change implementation.

Resistance is not always a negative characteristic of change, however. Leaders and managers need to appreciate resisters for two reasons. First, they have ideas that change-makers might have missed, especially in tackling problems in an unknown situation. Second, resisters are critical in the politics of implementation. Resistance can be constructive in identifying things that are going wrong. It is a source of constructive diagnosis of change, and it can be an important source of constructive feedback, alerting the change team to issues that must be addressed or modifications to the innovation that should be made in order for lasting, meaningful change to occur. It is clear that the fear, anxiety and discomfort that come along with resistance are important signals for improvement and for understanding when something is going wrong. It is the role of change managers to understand how to tackle this perceived emotional negativity in order to move forward in the change process. These positive aspects of resistance are balanced by the problems that accompany resistance.

Like any other institution, schools can face negative or positive resistance too, but what causes resistance in schools and what causes resistance at the management level in specific? Schools could face external factors that may contribute to principals’ resistance, such as: new power arrangements, evaluation, accountability, site budgeting, and unresponsive bureaucracies. Adding to the external factors, Sergiovanni (2001) identifies “mindscapes” as internal elements that influence resistance to change. Mindscapes influence what we see, believe and do. For principals, both internal mindscapes and external pressures can result in feelings of anxiety, loss of control, disempowerment, insecurity, anger and frustration. This in turn may account for principals’ resistance to change. External or internal resistance factors can appear in different ways: lack of trust, belief that change is unnecessary, belief that change is not feasible, economic threats, relatively high cost, fear of personal failure, loss of status and power, threats to values and ideas and resentment of interference.

There are different reasons for resistance to change. The first is fear of the unknown, i.e. the uncertainty of the objectives of the change. The second is lack of information: principals need information about the benefits of the change and how the change will be introduced. A third is threats to status:  principals need new skills to cope with the change, and if there is no training and support, then the change will be resisted. A fourth is the threat to power: some changes can reduce the influence one has in a school, and thus will be resisted by the affected principals. Finally, there is fear of failure: principals may fear to try new innovations because they are not sure of the results. Overall, Connor (1998) suggests, resistance to change is an emotionally based reaction. Some of these reasons for resistance can be classified on a personal level, such as a lack of trust and psychological conflicts. Others can be classified on an organizational level, such as power struggles, threats to values and the economy.

How to narrow down the cause(s) of resistance, how to avoid the pain, stress and ambiguity of change and how to manage resistance better are important questions for management and leadership. School principals need to understand the change process in order to lead and manage change and improvement efforts effectively. They must therefore learn to overcome barriers that exist during the complex process of change. Moreover, in order to guide political and organizational actions during change implementation, it is important to determine who can oppose or facilitate change. The organizational leaders must understand the political processes and the distribution of power and thereby identify likely supporters and opponents.

Below are some tips that can help schools manage resistance:

  1. Principals need to communicate and consult with their teachers. Teachers must be given the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of the change process and they must be given the opportunity to provide feedback.
  2. Principals should facilitate teamwork, they should empower their staff to be involved and provide the right environment and the resources for staff to take part.
  3. Another big part of managing change is that after the change goes live, reward and recognition keep the momentum going. Reward and recognition help sustaining the change.