Makarios Consulting Blog

Overt and Covert Resistance to Change

When people object to change – or, more accurately, the chaos that change brings – their objection can take two forms: overt resistance and covert resistance.

Overt resistance may or may not be verbal, but it is always obvious. You can see it in people’s body language, their facial expressions, and in what they say openly. In many ways, overt resistors are a gift, because you know where they stand and you can address them at their point of need. Of course, they can also be very dangerous to the change initiative because they may go so far as seeking “allies” to resist the change and even sabotage it.

Covert resistance is – by definition – much more subtle. These are the people who smile and say, “Yes, boss, I am with you!” in the meeting, then go back to their desks and don’t lift a finger to make the change happen. They’ll never have a negative word to say to your face, but at the water cooler they have whispered conversations that spread discontent.

Since overt resistance is easy to see and recognize, let’s take a closer look at how covert resistance operates through a real-world example. One day, we were walking to the training room of a client with a global footprint. Three employees were standing outside the training room and we caught the end of their conversation. One said, “Oh, right, that is why we are doing this!” and the three of them burst into sarcastic laughter. We made a mental note of the exchange, and went into the session.

The topic that day was change management, which was very appropriate since the site was undergoing a change initiative. Specifically, the company was establishing a “badge in, badge out” procedure for people entering or leaving the building. We were discussing this change in the session, and we related what we had heard in the hallway. Immediately, one of the women turned bright red and put her head down. When asked what was wrong, she admitted, “Those were my people. I just met with them this morning to tell them about the new procedure.” We replied, “It looks like you didn’t provide them with enough information!”

This manager told her people that this was a new security procedure – nothing more. They had interpreted what she said as “You don’t trust us and you think we’re ripping you off, so you’re acting like Big Brother.” The truth of the matter was that the company had had a terrible fire at one of their plants: the site burned to the ground. While the fire was going on, the management was frantic because they thought four people were still in the building and they couldn’t find them. Without a badge process in place, there was no record of where the people were (fortunately, they were not in the building). For that reason and that reason alone, the company instituted the badge in/badge out process. It was purely based on concern for the physical safety of their employees. The manager’s failure to explain this clearly and well resulted in covert resistance from her people.

We were relieved that we had overheard the team members’ comments about the initiative, because our sense was that team members would not have raised their concerns directly with the manager. They would, instead, have resisted the change covertly through back channel discussions that might have undermined their fellow employees’ willingness to fully follow the procedure.

Regardless of the nature of the change and regardless of the change approach you use, you may experience both overt and covert resistance to change. Communicate fully the reasons for the change and the impact you expect it will have on your team, then plan to spend a good amount of time listening to people’s reactions and questions. Work hard to uncover covert resistance to change and be willing to spend time responding to the concerns of the covert resistors.