Defence Mechanism and Organisational Change Essay

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The research register for this journal is available at Journal of
Received September
Revised May 2001
Accepted May 2001

The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at Resistance to organisational change: the role of defence mechanisms Wayne H. Bovey
Bovey Management (Certified Consultants), Queensland, Australia

Andrew Hede
University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia
Keywords Organizationa l change , Resistance, Defence, Humour
Abstract Observes tha t the published literature on resistance to organisational change has focused more on organisational issues rather than individual psychological factors. The present study investigated the role of both adaptive and maladaptive defence mechanisms in individual resistance. Surveys were conducted in nine organisations undergoing major chang e and responses were obtained fro m 615 employees. The results indicat e that five maladaptive defence mechanisms are positively correlated with behavioural intention to resist change , namely, projection, acting out, isolation of affect, dissociation and denial. The adaptive defence mechanism of humour was found to be negatively correlated with resistance intention. Identifie s two intervention strategies which can be used by management to addres s the effects of defence mechanisms on resistance during periods of chang e in organisations.

Journal of Managerial Psychology,
Vol. 16 No. 7, 2001, pp. 534-548.
# MC B University Press, 0268-3946

Individuals go through a reaction process when they are personally confronted wit h major organisational change (Jacobs, 1995; Kyle, 1993). According to Scott and Jaffe (1988) this process consists of four phases: initial denial, resistance, gradual exploration, and eventual commitment. Unconscious processes arise as individuals respond to the threats of change (Halton, 1994; O’Connor, 1993).
Individuals unconsciously use well-developed and habitual defence mechanisms to protect themselves from change and from the feelings of anxiety change causes (Oldham and Kleiner, 1990; de Board, 1978). These defences can sometimes obstruct and hinder an individual from adapting to change (Halton, 1994).
Resistance is a natural part of the change process and is to be expected
(Coghlan, 1993; Steinburg, 1992; Zaltman and Duncan, 1977). Resistance occurs because change involves going from the known to the unknown (Coghlan, 1993;
Steinburg, 1992; Myers and Robbins, 1991; Nadler, 1981). Typically, individuals seek a comfortable level of arousal and stimulation and try to maintain that state (Nadler, 1981; Zaltman and Duncan, 1977). Individuals differ in terms of their ability and willingness to adapt to organisational change
(Darling, 1993). This is because individuals experience change in different ways (Carnall, 1986). Some people tend to move through the change process rather quickly, while others may become stuck or experience multiple transitions (Scott and Jaffe, 1988).

The failure of many large-scale corporate change programs can be traced directly to employee resistance (Maurer, 1997; Spiker and Lesser, 1995; Regar et al., 1994; Martin, 1975). A longitudinal study conducted by Waldersee and
Griffiths (1997) of 500 large Australian organisations during 1993 and 1996 revealed that employee resistance was the most frequently cited implementation problem encountered by management when introducing change. Over half the organisations surveyed experienced employee resistance.
These findings raise questions about how effectively the resistance phase is managed when implementing change. Managing employee resistance is a major challenge for the initiators of change, and according to O’Connor (1993) outweighs any other aspect of the change process.
It could be argued that the vast majority of