Organizational change and resistance: An identity perspective

S.B. Ybema, R Thomas, C. Hardy

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A classic term in popular and scholarly literature on change management is ‘resistance to change’. It understands resistance in terms of opposition to managerial strategies for organizational change. Since change is generally viewed as reasonable and desirable within this literature, resistance to change promulgates the image of employees digging in their heels, refusing to offer support, and hindering a natural and necessary course of events (e.g., Kotter & Schlesinger, 1979). More recently, some change management scholars have embraced a more positive framing of resistance by viewing it as an opportunity to generate ‘conversations’ about change by involving employees, although ultimately with the aim of securing support for change (e.g., Ford, Ford & D’Amelio 2008). Resistance according to this view becomes instrumental to the strategies pursued by management. Critical scholars challenge both these views of resistance by rejecting a managerialist agenda. Instead, they are sceptical of managerially imposed change and conceptualize resistance as legitimate attempts by employees to repudiate initiatives that may benefit organizational interests, but which will impact negatively on their interests and working conditions (e.g., Thompson & Ackroyd, 1995).
In this chapter, we use a discursive approach to identity to interrogate these three approaches to resistance, and identify the different identities constructed in the different literatures – the ‘change agent’, the ‘change recipient’, and the ‘resistant subject’. Whether framing them in positive or negative terms, these different literatures tend to reify identities by categorizing individuals as either advocates or adversaries of change. We suggest that instead of fixed categories, identities are situationally constructed: organizational actors struggle to establish, maintain or disrupt particular notions of who they are and who others are in the process of negotiating organizational change and resistance. In this way, change, resistance and identity are intricately and dynamically connected. By reviewing how popular and critical literatures of change conceptualize resistance and identity, this chapter provides new insights to inform, and perhaps unsettle, received wisdom regarding resistance. Specifically, we aim to show how through the discursive enactment of identities in relation to change and resistance, organizational actors author different versions of self and other.
The chapter is organized as follows. We start by introducing the concept of identity as discursively constructed. We then examine the literature on organizational change and identify three distinct ways in which resistance has been conceptualized in this literature. We then discuss the specific identities that are typically constructed in and by the different literatures. We critique the reified nature of these identities, analyzing how each of these literatures engages in forms of discourse that abstracts, objectifies and fixes actors’ identities, classifying them in terms of, for instance, active champions, passive recipients, poor victims, smart resistors, etc. Using a short vignette of a change workshop we show how in discursive struggles over organizational change and resistance, organizational actors construct reified versions of change resistors, change agents and change recipients through self-other talk. We also show how this reification of identities obscures a more fluid process insofar as participants switch from one type of self-other talk to another during discussions, resulting in actors ‘becoming’ – or laying variable claims to ‘being’ – resistant and compliant at different points in time. Finally, we discuss some of the analytical, practical and ethical implications of our analysis as well as a few limitations, in an attempt to offer directions for future research and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Sage handbook of resistance
EditorsD. Courpasson, S. Vallas
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9781473906433
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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