Change Resistance: Understanding the Ironic Processes Theory

I have seen the impact of change initiatives in organizations, and often, the outcome differs from the original intent. This is where the ironic processes theory comes into play. Developed by psychologist Daniel Wegner, the ironic processes theory provides insights into why change efforts sometimes fail and how we can overcome these challenges.

The ironic processes theory is based on the idea that when we actively try to control our thoughts, it can have the opposite effect, and we end up thinking about the very thing we are trying to avoid. This phenomenon is known as the “ironic rebound effect.”

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, Fyodor Dostoevsky 1863

Here’s how the theory works. Trying to suppress a thought creates a mental “counterpressure,” which leads to increased awareness of the thought. This increased awareness can cause us to dwell on the thought, leading to an increase in the frequency and intensity of the thought.

The same principle applies to organizations and change initiatives.

Organizations attempting to control or suppress certain aspects of their culture or processes can increase those behaviors. This can result in resistance to change and an inability to achieve the desired outcome.

Ironic Rebound Effect – and resistance to change

How can organizations avoid this ironic rebound effect when implementing change initiatives? 

Here are some ideas:

  1. Involve employees in the change process: When employees feel like they have a voice in the change process, they are more likely to embrace the changes and actively participate in making them happen.
  2. Communicate the why, who + how it will impact: Change initiatives are more likely to succeed when employees understand the purpose and reasoning behind the changes.
  3. Be transparent: Lack of transparency can lead to resistance and mistrust, so it’s important to be open and honest about the changes, the impact they will have, and the timeline for implementation.
  4. Be patient: Change is a process, and it’s important to allow employees to adjust and adapt.
  5. Be supportive: Organizations must provide support and resources to help employees navigate the changes.
  6. Address resistance: Resistance is a natural part of the change process, so it’s essential to address it and find ways to listen, accept, and acknowledge it. Often using red-teaming techniques and letting resistance breathe will strengthen the change opportunity. 
  7. Celebrate successes: Celebrating successes, no matter how small, can help build momentum and keep employees motivated.
  8. Monitor progress: Regularly monitoring progress can help organizations identify potential roadblocks and make necessary adjustments.
  9. Stay flexible: Change initiatives can evolve and change over time, so it’s important to stay flexible and adjust as needed.

The ironic processes theory provides insights into why change initiatives sometimes fail and how organizations can understand and learn from these challenges. By being aware of these ideas, organizations can achieve their desired outcome and create a culture that supports growth and development.