Resistance to Change: Overcoming Multilevel Cynicism - Ideas for Leaders
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Resistance to Change: Overcoming Multilevel Cynicism

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Resistance to change is not just an individual attitude; it is also reflected at the organizational level through a cynicism to change (CTC) climate. Preventing or addressing resistance to change begins with understanding the multilevel nature of that resistance. Leaders need to address both individuals (e.g., be active in interacting with employees one on one and treating them as unique contributors) as well as organizational climates (e.g., by setting and reinforcing workplace norms, and making communications to the organization as a whole).


Cynicism to change (CTC) is often studied at the individual level — how employees react to change. Indeed, employee CTC will impact whether or not change can be successfully implemented in any organization. However, according to Katherine A. DeCelles of University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Paul E. Tesluk of the University of Buffalo School of Management, and Faye S. Taxman of George Mason University, there are organizational-level factors that play an important role as well. These factors include what the researchers label as CTC climate — an organizational climate that discourages and undermines acceptance and implementation of change.

In their research, DeCelles, Tesluk and Taxman reveal the multilevel outcomes of resistance to change. At the organizational level, they found that CTC climate increases organizational insubordination. For example, when most employees are cynical about what they might view as flavour-of-the-month initiatives, there is widespread refusal in the organization to pay attention to changes commanded by superiors.

At the individual level, the researchers found that employee CTC reduces individual commitment to the organization. If employees are pessimistic about change, their bond to the organization is weakened. This attitude will be reinforced by CTC climate: If an employee finds that most of his or her peers share this pessimism, that employee’s already tenuous commitment is further weakened.

Preventing these multilevel outcomes of resistance to change — an organization-wide culture of insubordination and individual lack of bonds to the organization — requires an equally multilevel approach.

The key here is transformational leadership. According to the research, transformational leadership:

  • Decreases organizational-level CTC climate by establishing an organizational climate that is optimistic about change, and putting in place organizational practices that support their optimistic leadership style;
  • Decreases employee CTC by persuading employees that change is needed and inspiring them to participate in the change;
  • Increases employee empowerment by leading employees to believe in their competence, the meaningfulness of their work and their self-determination. Empowerment further decreases employee CTC.

The research was based on data collected from 687 correctional officers working in all 14 prisons of an unidentified state in the U.S. The researchers chose a prison context for two reasons. First, the strict control and arrangement of the correctional system allowed the researchers to compare leadership and climate among the prisons knowing that other organizational-level factors — such as industry, location, job duties, structure and training — were constant. Second, law enforcement organizations are mechanistic: they have rigid structures that emphasize order, hierarchy, centralized power and formal rules and procedures. Mechanistic organizations are the most likely to develop a CTC climate and CTC employee attitudes.


As the research reveals, transformational leadership decreases CTC climate and employee CTC. In order to be transformational — to inspire and lead change — you must successfully convey the rationale behind change but also increase employee optimism about the possibility to change. In short, you must convince employees that change is needed and change is possible.

To achieve these two goals:

  • Provide a clear and inspiring vision of the future that challenges the status quo;
  • Use this vision to show employees the overall objective of the change — where the organization is going;
  • Build on the overarching objective of change to explain the purpose and meaning of the more specific change efforts under way. Show how changes to existing approaches and practices will set the organization on the road toward the envisioned future.

Empowering employees psychologically is also vitally important. Employees who believe in themselves and in what they can achieve are going to be more inclined to accept the possibilities of change than employees who have not been empowered.

There may have been change efforts in the past that have failed. Make an effort to cast these past initiatives in a positive light, perhaps as learning experiences that have prepared the organization for the current change.

Remember not only to address employee cynicism to change; you must also take steps to change an organizational CTC climate that might exist, including:

  • Model an unwavering optimistic attitude as a leader;
  • Be consistently optimistic and aspirational about change in your speeches, behaviours and communications;
  • Make sure that you and other senior leaders are sending highly visible and encouraging cues from senior leaders that point to a positive future for the organization;
  • Train all leaders to address resistance to change as a multilevel issue.

Finally, if insubordination is widespread or employees don’t feel a bond with the organization, take note. As the research demonstrates, these are not only signs that any change will be resisted, but also that there is a lack of transformational leadership in the organization.



A Field Investigation of Multilevel Cynicism Toward Change. Katherine A. DeCelles, Paul E. Tesluk & Faye S. Taxman. Organization Science (January–February 2013).

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Idea conceived

February 1, 2013

Idea posted

Jan 2014
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