Bringing Others Along: Dealing with Resistance during Change

Written by Jingjing Liu and Dr. Pamela Eddy, William & Mary

As student demographics are changing dramatically in the nation, leaders of higher education institutions have launched a series of campus initiatives for attaining and sustaining a diverse, equitable, and inclusive learning environment. They are eager to create positive change to support the education of all learners. However, "recognizing the need for change is one thing. Acting on it is another" (Holbeche, 2006, p. 25). For leaders as drivers for institutional change, the road of enacting change is not smooth, rather one that includes multiple barriers. Black and Gregersen (2002) identify the failure to see, the failure to move, and the failure to finish as three key barriers to lead strategic change. These barriers are rooted in the mental maps people hold that value the status quo. "Supporting others through the change process requires knowing what matters to them, speaking in terms that align with how they see the world, and institutionalizing the change into the organization's culture" (Eddy & Kirby, 2020, p. 50). Dealing with resistance to change is a common phenomenon, and leaders must consider ways to bring others along in change initiatives.

Understanding the role of resistance in new initiatives informs how to address barriers to change. Holbeche (2006) points out that "change leaders should anticipate three forms of resistance – logical, non-logical, and group-based" (p. 382). Resistance often slows down the change process. Meanwhile, it also raises an opportunity for leaders to reflect on how people's motivations challenge the proposed change. There are many sources for resistance to change, and at the heart is fear—fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear job loss. Knowing what motivates individuals and understanding their readiness for change helps guide strategies for change and bringing others along.

When faculty try to motivate their peers, they must focus on getting at the "why" for others to change their current practices. In part, individuals resist change if it causes more work in the short-term and has unknown outcomes. Yet, faculty members seeking to lead their peers in change can use the changes they have seen in their own classes when they instituted change to entice others to try them out. For example, Scott Mandia from Suffolk County Community College looked at course outcome data for a class section he taught to look at differences in student outcomes by race and gender. He began to make changes to his classroom teaching by using scientist spotlights and saw improvements. Next, Scott presented this information to his peers at a department meeting and helped his colleagues use a required reporting structure already in existence to build in changes to their teaching practices. This diffusion of change happens when others buy-into the changes recommended.

Another example of moving others along in an effort to improve student success was evident in programming at Santiago Canyon College in which Angela Daneshmand and Cindy Swift hosted a virtual Meeting of the Minds that included local geoscience educators with the goal of providing a space for networking and exchanging of ideas for collaboration. This program sought to smooth out the transfer pathway for students. Building in space to meet and to brainstorm plans is a critical step in getting buy-in to ideas and to build trust. Recognizing that change takes time to take hold is important as the downstream effects to sustain take time. At the heart of dealing with resistance to change is listening to the concerns individuals have and addressing them.

The field of higher education is constantly evolving and change will happen regardless if individuals and campuses plan for it. Building a professional development (PD) session on campus helps leaders improve their leadership skills to deal with resistance to support bringing others along can help. Following are several recommendations for conducting a PD session to help spread innovation.

  1. Provide a brief review of change theory. The PD session conveners can use scholars' recently published work on leading change in a challengeable context, such as Leading for Tomorrow: A Primer for Succeeding in Higher Education Leadership(Leading for Tomorrow) (Eddy & Kirby, 2020), and Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-To-Imaging Results Despite Uncertain and Volatile Times (Kotter, Akhtar, & Gupta, 2021). These books can give participants a solid background on the change process, and help individuals understand that an implementation dip and resistance are to be expected as people work toward change.
  2. Use scenarios to build plans to address resistance. Case studies can provide a good approach to involve participants in practicing problem-solving skills and discussing strategies for bringing others along in the educational settings. Using scenarios around change and resistance can demonstrate what to expect in the process, and inviting participants to brainstorm potential solutions can provide them more tools to address resistance in their own work.
  3. Realize that there will not be 100% buy-in. No matter how well people work to promote new processes and ideas, there are still people who will resist change. Being aware of the fact that leaders will not secure 100% agreement from everyone helps leaders think about how they can clearly articulate the strategic vision and motivate others who commit to the change initiatives.
  4. Develop a relationship network to tap. In order to obtain enough buy-in for change efforts, leaders need to build relationships with individuals in the organization. The previous examples noted above illustrate how individual faculty members used their relationships to help bring others on board. Investing in relationship building before instituting change is critical. This support network can be tapped when needed.


Black, J. S., & Gregersen, H. B. (2002). Leading strategic change: Breaking through the brain barrier. Pearson Education.

Eddy, P. L., & Kirby, E. (2020). Leading for tomorrow: A primer for succeeding in higher education leadership. Rutgers University Press.

Holbeche, L. (2006). Understanding change: Theory, implementation, and success. Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Santiago Canyon College. (n.d.). Santiago Canyon College annual report (2019-2020).