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Resistance to Change – Organizational Silence

Posted by | January 14, 2015 | Communication, Employer, Workplace

Via LinkedIn : One can create a constructive approach towards change within an organization; however, if pluralistic views are unaccepted, constructive change is difficult. Kant (nd), suggests that if individuals are required to change, it may take some time to do so because people are accustomed to doing things in a particular manner. Individuals are resistant to change, especially if they have been tenured in an organization and perhaps a particular field. Watson (1982) noted that it is common for managers to perceive resistance negatively, and, as such, employees who do resist change are classified as disobedient; therefore, managers are prone to treat their employees as obstacles – dismissing potential valid concerns towards proposed changes (Piderit, 2000). More importantly, attitudes towards change challenge status quo, management’s ideals and management seniority, which lead towards the dismissal of potentially valid organizational concerns by employees. Unfortunately, this perception of resistance is misunderstood and regarded as disrespectful or unjustified, unknowing that such opposition may be driven by ones ethical principles or personal ideal to protect the organizations best interest (Piderit, 2000).



Watson (1982) suggests that such resistance is just simply reluctance to change and behavioral theorists suggests that such reluctance is influenced by multiple dimensions of attitudes towards the change. Krantz (1999) and Rosenberg and Hovland (1960) argue that attitudes are organized along three dimensions – cognitive, emotional and intentional. The benefit of identifying and using such multidimensional understanding in describing employees various attitudes towards organizational change is that one can conceptualize each as a separate unit, which will allow the comprehension of employee’s reactions along the various dimensions (Piderit, 2000). This provides a richer view to which employees may react and respond to change. In addition, Pratt and Barnett (1997) argue that ambivalence is essential in stimulating unlearning which is a precursor towards change. Similarly,Weigert and Franks (1989) argue that ambivalence can offer a foundation to which motivating new action occurs, rather-than performing old routines (Watson, 1982). Therefore, pluralistic views are essential in identifying unconsidered alternative behaviors. However, many organizations are caught in paradoxes in which employees refrain from expressing issues and problems. Such employees face unforeseen consequences in challenging corporate policy and perceived managerial rights and organizations are typically intolerant of opposition; therefore, employees are reluctant to communicate issues and problems to management (Ewing, 1977).

Do not rock the boat, just do your job…

Although Watson (1982) advocates for pluralism, it appears that many organizations and management create conditions conducive to silence, which has negative consequences towards change. Redding (1985) suggests that many organizations implicitly advocate that employees should not “rock the boat” through challenging corporate guidelines or managerial rights (Morrison and Milliken, 2000). In addition,Ewing (1977) and Nemeth (1997) found that organizations are particularly intolerant of opposition and therefore, employees refrain from engaging in upward communication in presenting problems, issues and ideas. As such, multiple viewpoints are neglected and the health of the organization suffers (Argyris and Schon, 1978).

managements fear of negative feedback and implicit beliefs

If pluralistic views are important for decision making, and such theory is expressed in literature, then why do management lack such behavior? Morrison and Milliken (2000) argue that ‘organizational silence is an outcome that owes its origins to (1) managers’ fear of negative feedback, and (2) the set of implicit beliefs often held by managers’ (Morrison and Milliken, 2002: 708). Brockner and James (2008) noted, based upon the work of Staw et al. (1981) that ‘organizations and the people and groups that comprise them, react to the stress and anxiety elicited by the interpretation of strategic issues as threats’ (Brockner and James, 2008: 99).

Interestingly enough, Staw et al. (1981) noted that stress and anxiety leads towards the limitation of the amount of information that is processed and how that information is actually processed. Therefore, subsequent to and during a crisis, stakeholders are less likely to be tolerant to information that challenges status quo. As such, individuals attempt to evade negative feedback (Ashford and Cummings, 1983) and if they do, then it is ignored or dismissed as inaccurate or attack the credibility of the source to deem it as unjustified (Ilgen et al., 1979). Further, this behavior appears to be strong with managers (Argyris and Schon, 1978) and subordinates (Ilgen et al., 1979) as they attempt to refrain from vulnerability and/or incompetence.

Morrison and Milliken (2000) argues that particular conditions foster such behavior such as the lack of subordinate identification as one progresses upward within the organization, the conceptualization of “management knows best”, the belief about employee self-interest and the belief that employees lack understanding of the operation and financial condition of the organization. Such rationalization by management refrain employees from involving them in the decision making processes. More importantly, Ilgen et al. (1979) suggests that managers are more likely to dismiss or discount feedback from employees if such feedback differs from their own.



Such organizational silence and highly centralized structure establishes a negative organizational climate which hinders employee upward communication. Morrison and Milliken (2000) argue that this affects employee’s cognitions, attitudes and behavior – employees feel unvalued, have lack of control and have cognitive conflict. In order to capitalize upon the ideal pluralism structure, it is essential for that system to permit employee communication without recourse. If not, management may diagnose employees as disengaged, self-interested, and opportunistic, which may lead towards inaccurately holding them accountable for outcomes that are purely managements causations (Morrison and Milliken, 2000). More importantly, the lack of pluralistic views prevents growth and, perhaps, establishes competitive disadvantages.

Unfortunately, perhaps, management true behavior contradicts what is perceived to be communicated due to the violation of social norms.

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