by Norman Lanier, Ph.D, Corporate Psychologist & Executive Coach

Ranking right up there near the age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is a somewhat similar and equally puzzling question, “Why are people resistant to change?”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in preparing to write When Bad Things Happen to Good People researched, reflected, and studied many cases of tragedies that befell people who had essentially lived good lives consistent with values-based principles. Rabbi Kushner ultimately concluded that some suffering and bad occurrences are caused by the natural order of the universe, and are out of our control as humans.

But is human resistance to change part of the natural order of the universe? When something bad happens to us, it many times is outside of our control; but when we avoid making a needed change, is that really because it was impossible for us to do anything about it? Professionals from many disciplines have studied resistance to change, and have raised any number of questions with the same basic theme: WHY?

Literature in the psychiatric and psychological domains is loaded with research about behavior change and difficulties in achieving this change. Think about it—a person is experiencing difficulties, clearly states a need and desire to change, pays money for therapy or coaching and guess what is the biggest obstacle for the professional to overcome?

Right—the person’s reluctance to change! People who want to improve their golf game show fundamental resistance. . . The instructor may suggest a change in the golfer’s grip (which is how the club is held in the golfer’s hands), and encounters responses such as, “This is the grip I have always used, and in the past, it has worked really well. . . What about my stance—am I standing too close to the ball?”

The golfer, in this situation a student, wants to learn and to improve. She or he wants to get better and to have more confidence and success in the pursuit of her or his definable goals. The golfer is also paying money, or investing in this personal development.

Yet in this example, the one suggestion, probably gently offered is rejected, and the topic of what to change is shifted. And, it is shifted to a topic that the help seeker is more comfortable dealing with. In this case, it seems easier to talk about how to move closer or further away from the ball than to talk about how to change the way the hands grasp the club.


As leader, coach and psychologist who advise, mentor and encourage others, some things never surprise us:

  • The presenting problem is rarely the real problem (individuals are typically not so good at diagnosing themselves).
  • Although eager and willing to invest (financially and emotionally) in self-improvement, there is resistance to significant and lasting change.

These conclusions can be discouraging, and lead to pessimistic predictions such as one that we oftentimes hear voiced: “People don’t really change. . .” or a more vernacular version, “The leopard never changes its spots.”

When asked if we think people truly change, we say, “Of course we do, or we wouldn’t be in the businesses we’re in.” Then we may ask, “Have you yourself changed over time?”, to which almost everyone responds resoundingly, “Yes, well, I sure have!”, implying that they are sticking with their original opinion about others NOT changing.

Our “anecdotal research” suggests that as human beings, we are more confident in our own ability to change than we are in this ability in others. Or maybe, we are saying that we think we know how to change our own behavior, but are not so sure about how to change behavior in others. In reality, though, we suggest that all of us may give ourselves too much credit for having changed our own behaviors and habits.

Next time, we will further explore the paradox of why do people who want so badly to change actually resist changing? We will identify 5 truisms that stand in the way of our embracing change, identifying what we need to change, and then showing the tenacity and discipline to bring about real, sustainable change.

We believe it is tempting to want to change several things at once, but we at Parrish Partners recommend identifying That One Thing (TOT) and attacking it (see today’s TOT Part 2 posting by Michele Parrish).

Copyright Norm Lanier, 2017