Breaking the Mold: An Educational Perspective on Diffusion of Innovation/Strategies to Diagnose and Overcome Resistance to Change

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By Erin Kramer

In order to help overcome resistance, change leaders need to realize that there are already strengths within the program or organization, and these strengths should not be ignored but should be celebrated and encouraged. However, there are also weaknesses that exist in every situation. To move forward, these weaknesses need to be changed and possibly even abandoned. In these situations, as change occurs, people must move through what is essentially a grieving process. Whether they realize it or not, people are having to part with thoughts or practices that they felt were working. Kramer’s chapter deals with change, types of resistance, and strategies to diagnose and overcome resistance.

Strategies to Diagnose and Overcome Resistance to Change[edit | edit source]

The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable. -- John F. Kennedy

Change[edit | edit source]

Change, no matter the setting, takes time. Society often tends to forget that key fact. Pushing the process along can help, but steps must be followed to completion in order for a successful, long-term change to occur. In Fullan’s model for change that focused on the educational arena, he felt there were four phases in the change process: initiation, implementation, continuation, and outcome (Ho). Even with only four phases, each of those phases takes time on its own, so allowing the change process to play out can be time-consuming. As Blackman and Kennedy mentioned, in order for sustainable change to occur in an organization, individual behavior must be changed, and in order to change individual behavior, there must be new learning that is used in new ways (2011, p. 209).

The process of change plays out everywhere around us. Individual people grow and change as they age. Society changes as time passes. Technology is constantly changing as new innovations come to the forefront. The business world changes to maximize profits and stay relevant in society. Schools (and education in general) follow some of the same ideas of the business world, but they exist in a unique environment and have some different rules from other arenas such as business or society. Many different groups pull schools in many different directions. Parents and students are focused on one outcome. Teachers have their own objectives they are trying to meet. Administrators and School Boards have their own goals. Both state and national government have a hand in schools. As Hull, Balka, and Miles said, there are many layers of responsibility and due to those layers, there are problems with clarity, communication, and expectations (2010, p. 37). To an individual teacher, big changes seem distant and unattainable. How does someone far away in Washington, D.C. know what I should do in a classroom that I am in every day?

Those within the schools themselves feel like they are being pulled in many different directions at all times and that they are constantly undergoing change. However, as Thompson mentions, these “changes” seem to have little effect on anything (2010, p. 271). While schools have pretended to change and not really gotten anywhere, the world has been changing rapidly around them (Thompson, 2010, p. 271). Business and society and technology have changed, and they would all be unrecognizable compared to one hundred years ago. However, if we compared a school from 1900 to a school from today, would they look that different? What is stopping people from changing?

Types of Resistance[edit | edit source]

According to Williamson and Blackburn, there are two main reasons why people resist change—they don’t understand the value, or they don’t feel they personally will be successful (2010, p. 73). In either case, those being asked to change feel as though the change is unnecessary, so why bother? Since their mindset is “against” change, being forced to change would result in added stress. As Williamson and Blackburn would suggest, this stress leads to movement to lower levels on Maslow’s hierarchy, mainly to survival and security. Within these fight or flight stages, individuals will tend to do those two things—fight the change completely, or run away from it.

As part of resistance to change, there are two main types of resistance that can play a role. Individuals may resist change, but also organizations as a whole may resist as well. According to Antariksa, there are five main reasons why individuals resist. They are: habit, economic factors, job security, fear of the unknown, and selective information processing.

First, people are creatures of habit, and they do not want to change. They are used to doing things in a certain way, and it takes great effort to change. Next, economic factors and job security fit together in the sense that individuals do not want to risk money (either by investing in something that might not work or putting themselves out there to possibly lose their job altogether); by staying put, they may not reap the benefits of a great discovery, but they most likely are not going to lose what they have. This leads right into the fourth reason, which is fear. Most people fear what is not known, and change is definitely an unknown item. Comfort exists in what people are used to, so asking them to change pushes them out of their comfort zone and adds to their stress level. Last, individuals often choose what they want to hear. If someone does not want to change, they are going to choose to just hear the good about the current situation (ignoring the negatives) or they are going to choose to just hear the bad about the change (ignoring the positives). They are selectively choosing what to “hear” and believe and thus giving themselves a basis to stand on for not changing.

Organizations resist change as well. Antariksa also listed five reasons for organizational resistance, and they are: threat to established power relationships, threat to established resource allocations, structural inertia, limited focus of change, and group inertia.

As hard as it can be to change individuals, it can be even harder to move an entire group forward. There are often many obstacles, and the first one involves power that has already been put in place. Change doesn’t always come from the top, and if lower members suggest change, this can upset the power balance; if those in power do not agree with the change, it will often be stopped in its tracks. Those on top want to stay there, and in order to stay there they need to feel as though they are in control and calling the shots. The next reason mentioned was threat to current resource allocations. New ideas often bring new costs, and the funding (monetary, time, and people) must come from somewhere. In order to fund something new, something old is often reduced or eliminated. This can cause friction within an organization when small groups are fighting to push their ideas and beliefs forward. The third reason is structural inertia. According to Hannan, structural inertia is “a correspondence between a class of organizations and their environments” (1984). So based on the environment the organization is functioning in, that environment is holding the organization in place (and essentially prohibiting change). Fourth is the limited focus of change. If a change is only involving a small portion of the organization, then many within the organization won’t feel the need to take part and the overall organization will not want to change. Last, group inertia comes into play. When the entire group is moving in one direction, it is very difficult to change where it is going or stop it altogether.

There are many reasons why change efforts fail, but Kotter (1995, p. 61) has come up with eight errors that are often encountered. These errors, ranging from a confusing view of the vision to higher management not practicing what they preach, lead to resistance on the part of many workers. These reasons can have a lasting impact on both individual and organizational change, and these common errors--if not properly diagnosed--can lead to even more frustration and resistance on the part of everyone.

Diagnosing Resistance[edit | edit source]

Despite having a change that initially takes hold, the change may not last. Everyone must work to sustain the change, or people will quickly (and especially in times of stress) revert to old habits (Thompson, 2010, p. 279). Also, groups must make a careful distinction between commitment and compliance. Is the goal simply making everyone change their ways of doing or thinking, or is the goal to have everyone want to change? As Thompson discusses, in most situations groups would prefer that everyone truly “buys in” to the change and is thus that much more committed to seeing it through (2010, p. 280).

There are five key reasons why people resist change that Calberg sums up in his presentation. Calberg’s five reasons are that the person:

  1. Is against all that is new or different
  2. Is not interested in the idea
  3. Does not understand the message
  4. Does not trust the leader
  5. Is afraid

In the first instance, the person will come up with any and all excuses when approached with the idea of change. They simply do not want to change from what they are used to. In the second case, the person does not see that the change has any impact on them. They would rather focus on something they care about instead of something they see as a waste. For the third reason, the person does not understand the point the change agents are trying to make. Maybe those in power have good ideas, but the communication of the ideas is not having an impact on the person they are trying to change. Maybe the wording does not make sense, or maybe the outcomes are not clear. In reason number four, the person being asked to change does not trust the change agent. In this case, why should the person listen? Since change is a scary situation, the person under stress (being asked to change) needs to feel comfortable with the change agent and needs to feel as though they are being asked to do something that will truly benefit them. Finally, the fifth reason is probably the biggest pitfall of all, and that is simply fear. This fear relates directly to the individual resistance mentioned earlier. Individuals are afraid of losing things (money, power, tradition, employment). They are also afraid of trying and failing (for example, will they be able to learn something new? Will they be able to let go of the old?)

Overcome Resistance[edit | edit source]

In order to help overcome resistance, change leaders need to realize that there are already strengths within the program or organization, and these strengths should not be ignored but should be celebrated and encouraged. However, there are also weaknesses that exist in every situation. To move forward, these weaknesses need to be changed and possibly even abandoned. In these situations, as change occurs, people must move through what is essentially a grieving process. Whether they realize it or not, people are having to part with thoughts or practices that they felt were working. Often these thoughts and actions that were a part of their comfort zone must be removed. As Thompson talks about, people have to grow and change and part with things they liked, and this follows the path of grieving (2010). People must deal with the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with trying something new and changing their lives.

To help overcome this anxiety, change leaders need to realize what is happening. As Bridges stated, “It isn’t the changes themselves that the people in these cases resist. It’s the losses and endings that they have experienced and the transition that they are resisting” (2003, p. 24). Instead of being truly resistant to change, people are grieving the end of their old way of doing things. People must be given the time and proper tools to deal with their grief in order to successfully move on. Change leaders can work in concert with those who are grieving in order to help them acknowledge and address their feelings.

Change leaders must also realize that brains are made of two distinct parts: emotional and rational (Heath and Heath, 2011). These two parts of the brain are often warring with each other; motivation comes and goes, and so does direction. In order to successfully guide everyone, the change leader must provide direction, he must provide motivation, and he must provide a path (Heath and Heath, 2011). As Haidt cleverly summarized this idea in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, a rider and an elephant often have conflicting ideas about where and when and how they should go. The rider (the rational and logical mind) and the elephant (the emotional mind) must work together to get anywhere (2006). The rider must make sound decisions, but the elephant must take the first step down the path.

Those trying to make changes must also build a rapport with those they are trying to change. As the article by Hull, Balka, and Miles talks about, change agents need to meet and interact with those they are trying to change; they need to find out what they think, what they fear, what they want (2010, p. 40). These change agents need to be embedded within the community to offer help and support; they need to come into the classroom and work with the teachers. These agents can help overcome the problems of miscommunication and misunderstanding. When they are “in the trenches” with the teachers, they truly build that rapport and teachers can feel as though they are on equal footing.

Finally, the change agents need to avoid trying to use a “one-size-fits-all” approach to change. Each situation is different and should be treated as such. In their article Choosing Strategies for Change, Kotter and Schlesinger talk about analyzing factors that surround each situation. When analyzing situational factors, there are four main topics to consider: what resistance is expected, the power balance between change agents and resisters, the information source to design the change initiative, and how fast the change must take place (2008, p. 133). When those in power to change things really consider those being impacted, and when they help them through the change “grief” process, communication lines can be opened and true acceptance of the change can occur. When people truly buy-in to the new ideas, then successful and sustaining change can happen.

References[edit | edit source]

Antariksa, Y. (n.d.). Change management. Retrieved from

Blackman, D. and Kennedy, M. (2011). Sometimes, to change the people, you’ve got to change the people: When learning is not enough. International Journal of Learning and Change, 5(3-4), 208-226.

Bridges, W. (2003). Managing transitions: Making the most of change (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Calberg, F. (2007). 5 reasons why people resist change. Retrieved from

Dormant, D. (1986). The ABCDs of managing change. In M. Smith (ed.), Introduction to performance technology. Washington, DC.: The National Society for Performance and Instruction.

Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hannan, M. (1984). Structural inertia and organizational change. American Sociological Review, 49(2), 149-164.

Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2011). Overcoming resistance to change. School Administrator, 68(3), 28-32.

Ho, W. (n.d.). Fullan’s educational change. Retrieved from

Hull, T. D., Balka, D. S., and Miles, R. H. (2010). Overcoming resistance to change. Principal Leadership, 10(8), 36-37, 40-42.

Kotter, J. P. (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, (March-April), 59-67.

Kotter, J. P. and Schlesinger, L. A. (2008). Choosing strategies for change. Harvard Business Review, (July-August), 130-139.

Thompson, D. R. (2010). Foundations of change for the scholar-practitioner leader. Scholar-Practitioner Quarterly, 4(3), 270-286.

Williamson, R. and Blackburn, B. R. (2010). Dealing with resistance to change. Principal Leadership, 10(7), 73-75.