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Management Teaching Review
2020, Vol. 5(3) 246 –258

© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/2379298119831412

Experiential Exercises

Understanding Resistance
to Change: An Experiential

Virajanand Varma1

Organizational change remains one of the challenging concepts for students in
leadership and organizational behavior classes to internalize if they have not
experienced it directly. This exercise serves as a means for simulating the change
process through a firsthand experience of change at a personal level. The assignment
involves students choosing to experience a personal change (e.g., abstaining from
a habit) for 3 weeks, maintaining a log of daily experiences, and writing a summary
of the takeaways from their experience. Most of the students find it challenging to
complete the task successfully (i.e., maintain total abstinence), which contributes to
a lively follow-up discussion on successfully leading change and gives the students
an opportunity to understand various challenges related to change implementation.
This exercise can be used with a range of graduate and undergraduate courses in
management curricula as well as in other leadership development programs.

resistance to change, change management, experiential exercise, MBA

Effective management of change is a fundamental challenge for most managers in
organizations today (Gigliotti, Vardaman, Marshall, & Gonzalez, 2018). As a result,
business schools devote substantial time to addressing issues relating to organizational
change in their organizational behavior and leadership courses. However, many stu-
dents have little or no work experience with such changes; thus, they falsely assume
their effectiveness in such situations, downplaying the difficulties of managing change.

1Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, LA, USA

Corresponding Author:
Virajanand Varma, Department of Management & Marketing, Nicholls State University, 311 Powell Hall,
Thibodaux, LA 70301, USA.
Email: [email protected]

831412MTRXXX10.1177/2379298119831412Management Teaching ReviewVarma

mailto:[email protected]

Varma 247

The highly intuitive nature of many organizational social science topics, including
organizational change, also leads many students to believe that the material is common
sense, which inhibits learning and student engagement.

Experiential learning exercises have been argued to assist in simulating the rele-
vance of the topics covered making them more exciting and engaging (Kolb, 1984).
Well-crafted experiential activities push students to confront the complexity and ambi-
guity inherent in real-life management situations such as organizational change. In this
article, I describe an exercise where students experience firsthand the challenge of
managing change (and change resistance) at the individual level along with common
outcomes of the exercise and recommend approaches to debrief the activity.

Theoretical Foundation

Resistance to Change

Change initiatives are often faced with opposition characterized by behaviors that
delay and disrupt the change process and its desired outcomes (Burke, 2017; Moutousi
& May, 2018). Resistance is often cited as the reason why change fails (Ford & Ford,
2010). According to Oreg (2003), individuals resist change because of their reluctance
to lose control, cognitive rigidity, lack of psychological resilience, intolerance to the
adjustment period involved in change, preference for low levels of stimulation and
novelty, and reluctance to give up old habits. Resistance may also arise due to habits
reinforcing the status quo (Ford, Ford, & D’Amelio, 2008), the change being consid-
ered inappropriate (Rafferty, Jimmieson, & Armenakis, 2013), or lack of management
support (Kirrane, Lennon, O’Connor, & Fu, 2017).

Experiential Learning

Dewey (1938) asserted that “all genuine education comes about through experience”
(p. 25). Impactful experiences followed by reflection and application can lead to
higher-order learning (Bloom, 1956) and greater skill development (Smart & Csapo,
2007). Experiential learning encourages adult learners to become actively involved
(Dachner & Polin, 2016), and it provides a means to generate practical examples to
reflect on the emotional, relational, and power dynamics of organizational change
(Bridgman, 2020; Larsen, 2004; Reynolds & Vince, 2007). Experiential learning is a
perfect vehicle for teaching change management since it calls for application of sev-
eral skills such as problem solving, managing stakeholders’ needs and expectations,
and communicating to manage resistance to change (Lewis & Grosser, 2012; Stovall,

The Personal Change Exercise

The Personal Change Exercise, commonly used in Addictive Behavior and Substance
Abuse courses, was adapted for an MBA course with several learning goals in mind

248 Management Teaching Review 5(3)

that are aligned with higher-order cognitive learning elements from Bloom’s taxon-
omy (1956). From this exercise, students will be able to:

1. gain a deeper understanding of change recipients’ experience;
2. recognize individual barriers to change;
3. improve their awareness of the attitudes and skills needed for management of

4. analyze their own behaviors to develop effective change management strate-

gies; and
5. enhance their understanding of other factors that may make change manage-

ment more effective.

I have successfully used this exercise in graduate courses on leadership with 15 to
30 students in the weeks leading to class sessions on leading organizational transfor-
mation. It can also be used in undergraduate courses on organizational behavior and
change management.

The Personal Change Exercise applies several principles of experiential learning
such as experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting, via five components: experi-
ence, daily writing, reflection, experience sharing/discussion, and debriefing.

Exercise Components

The Experience (3 Weeks; Outside Class). The exercise requires students to abstain from
a habitual behavior for 3 weeks. They may choose to refrain from using a mood-
altering substance (like alcohol, sugar, caffeine) or activity (like binge-watching TV/
Netflix, excessive indulgence in social media, shopping for leisure). The goal is to put
students through a change experience that they do not easily choose to do. The experi-
ence is unique in that the students temporarily have to deal with their reluctance to
give up set habits, tolerate the adjustment involved, and overcome the tendencies to
maintain the status quo. See Appendix A for instructions and Appendix B for a grad-
ing rubric.

Diary Writing (Daily Activity for the 3 Weeks of Habit Change; Outside Class). I instruct
students to keep a daily diary to record their experiences during the planned change
(see Appendix A). The daily log offers two learning possibilities. First, it compels
students to think about their experience (the whys and wherefores). Second, it forces
them to articulate their thoughts in a limited number of words. Diary writings of stu-
dents typically refer to the everyday challenges, surprises, or comfort regarding the
experience. For examples, see Appendix C.

Reflection (Once at the End of 3 Weeks; Outside Class). Scholars have emphasized the
importance of reflection in professional and management development (Quijada,
McGrath, & Wheaton, 2016). Reflection reports are means to elaborate individual les-
sons learned, integrate theory and experience, and articulate implications of such

Varma 249

lessons at the personal as well as the organizational levels. Furthermore, students must
articulate these thoughts in writing, an active task that requires them to formulate
thoughts and clarify meaning. For more specifics, see Appendix A.

Experience Sharing/Discussion (30 Minutes in a Class That Meets for 90 Minutes). Open-
ended experiential activities that require students to deal with a challenging experience
can lead to engaged classroom discussions (Caza, Caza, & Lind, 2011). After the 3
weeks are over, students are invited to discuss their experiences in class. Everyone is
encouraged to speak. Sharing their experience with the rest of the class opens avenues
for students to extend meaning from their experience as well as others by making con-
nections and finding patterns.

Debriefing (60 Minutes in a Class That Meets for 90 Minutes). The debriefing uses a series
of five open-ended questions. The responses to these questions efficiently funnel into
meaningful conversations about change management. I introduce theoretical concepts
and connect them with the various student experiences during such discussions.

Question 1: How was your project experience? The responses to this question are
typically mixed in nature. Some students enjoy it very much, a few are ambivalent,
and a rare couple are not very positive about it. I mention that this distribution proba-
bly mirrors actual change recipient response during organizational change. There are
early adopters, some sitting-on-the-fence waiting for more information or more direct
incentives, and some who actively resist the change proposal. Most of the resistance in
class comes from either not being convinced how this project will help them (rewards
other than assignment grade) or for being exposed to a potentially vulnerable situation
(personal freedom and power being taken away). In the context of the exercise, change
resistance refers to relapsing or giving up (maintaining the status quo). See Appendix
D for sample responses.

Question 2: How would you have felt if your instructor had specified a particular
change (as opposed to them choosing it)? The responses lead us to discuss the role of
employee participation and involvement (Brown & Cregan, 2008) in creating buy-in
and support. Additionally, I explain how emotions experienced by change recipients
(Oreg, Bartunek, Lee, & Do, 2018) could influence their attitudes toward change.

Question 3: How successful were you in your change implementation? What chal-
lenges did you encounter? What helped you? Here again, the nature of responses is
mixed. Many fail (or cheat), while some successfully manage to maintain the change.
I refer to how individuals experience change differently, and how change success
depends on factors like individual readiness, motivation to sustain the change: intrin-
sic and extrinsic (what if this change was an organizational mandate and if your job
depended on it), support available from family/peers (whether supportive or not), self-
efficacy, and so on. See Appendix E for sample responses.

Question 4: What are the key takeaways? How would it help you manage personal
change in the future? This question leads to a variety of lessons that are unique to
individuals as well as a set of lessons that are common to most students. While this
exercise is seldom the first experience the students have with a personal change, it is

250 Management Teaching Review 5(3)

probably the first where they actively think, record, and share their experience. For
most participants (based on their feedback; see Appendix F), this assignment helps
them proactively consider factors that they have to manage when planning for a per-
sonal change in the future, such as the appropriateness of change, preparedness/readi-
ness, developing a support system, evaluating implications for other stakeholders.

Question 5: What lessons can you use when managing change in an organizational
context? This question tests student’s ability to transfer their learning to an organiza-
tional context. Even in corporate settings, change affects individuals in different ways.
Change is personal for each employee (Bridges, 2009; Schein, 2013). To overcome
resistance, managers need to recognize and acknowledge the profound personal
impacts on the individuals involved. How employees feel and how they interpret the
implications of the change in their personal lives influence the extent to which the
change is successful. See Appendix G for sample responses.


The exercise could be potentially modified in multiple ways. As opposed to students
focusing on the experience alone, instructors could specify measurable goals at the
beginning to increase student accountability. However, they need to make sure that the
goal is set and assessed in a fair manner. Alternatively, instructors could make the
exercise more representative of a top-down change by either randomly assigning a
change to each student or having everybody experience the same change.

For large classes, reflection and debrief could be planned differently. For instance,
all students choosing to undergo the same change could be put in groups and asked to
discuss common challenges and experiences. Alternatively, instructors could use
mobile applications such as Kahoot or Poll Everywhere to do a quick survey about
student experiences to items measuring satisfaction, resistance, takeaways, and so on.


The Personal Change Exercise is a valuable pedagogical tool for teaching organiza-
tional change. However, it has its limitations. For example, its apparent lack of face
validity: some students question the relevance of this assignment, particularly during
the initial stages, which is why the reflection paper and the debriefing are crucial.
Experiencing an organizational transformation is not the same as undergoing a per-
sonal change as the assignment demands. However, on a deeper level of analysis, they
are not much different. For example, both involve getting out of one’s comfort zone,
discarding a habitual behavior, and dealing with intense emotional reactions.

There is a possibility that students may become sick (depending on the nature of
change) or that students may develop resentment toward the instructor for putting
them through an uncomfortable experience. However, in the 4 years that I have used
this exercise, I have rarely seen it happen. In cases when an odd reaction surfaced, I
have consciously addressed the issue and traced it back to a possible change recipient
reaction in an organizational situation.

Varma 251

Another limitation (as pointed out by a student) is that students may totally “make
up” their experience without actually going through one; for example, by scripting
fake diaries and writing reflections that are untrue. I address this possibility in various
ways. One, the change is chosen by the students themselves. Next, the change is tem-
porary, that is, lasting 3 weeks only. Then I make it clear that the grade for the assign-
ment is not dependent on whether a student successfully maintains their abstinence.
Furthermore, instructors could note such “sabotage” as a form of resistance itself.


While managing change is an integral part of a managerial career, students enrolled in
business programs often underestimate the challenge of change execution. The
Personal Change Exercise exposes them to issues such as change resistance, employee
involvement, and change communication. I have found that this exercise gives stu-
dents a better grasp of these issues, and the assignment leads to engaging discussions
about organizational change.

Appendix A

The Personal Change Exercise

This assignment requires you to experience a personal change for 3* weeks. By per-
sonal change, I mean refraining from a behavior that is more like a habit to you. You
may choose to abstain from using a mood-altering substance, food, or activity.
Examples of substances include alcohol, tobacco (smoking or chewing), caffeine (cof-
fee, tea, colas), sugar (soda, desserts, candy/chocolate), or other similar substances.
Examples of activities include watching TV/Netflix (binge or otherwise), spending
time on the computer/smartphone (outside work such as social media, gaming), shop-
ping for leisure (online or otherwise), etc. The purpose of this assignment is to help
you in understanding what people face when experiencing change. Please do not
choose something that is very easy for you. The quality of your learning experience
depends on whether the change you choose is really challenging for you. You will not
be graded on your success or failure in implementing the change,** but on your growth
in understanding yourself and of the dynamics involved in dealing with change.
However, it is essential to make your best effort for the full 3 weeks.

Please inform me at least a week before the project starts what change you have
chosen. Additionally, you are to inform at least one other person in your life, maybe a
parent, partner, roommate, coworker, or supervisor, etc.***

You are required to maintain a daily diary describing and reflecting on your per-
sonal experience, with at least one (1) entry per day describing your experiences,
thoughts, feelings, successes, and struggles. Each day’s entry should be a paragraph

252 Management Teaching Review 5(3)

(3-5 sentences). It is okay if you do not experience anything significant; merely make
a note of it.

In your journal, describe the following:

•• Your reasons for choosing the specific change experience
•• Your day-to-day experiences. Is it difficult? If yes, why (try to look for more

profound reasons). If not, then why not?
•• How do you feel physically (energy, fitness, etc.) and mentally (motivation,

emotions, confidence, self-efficacy, etc.)?
•• What are you learning about yourself?
•• What are you learning about managing change?

Finally, write a 3-page double-spaced reflection about how this experience will
help you in understanding or working with executing organizational change. Be spe-
cific. The final report inclusive of your diaries and the reflection is due on (Date).
Consider the following questions when writing this reflection section:

1. What are your key takeaways from the experience?
2. To what extent were you successful?
3. How would it help you manage personal change in the future?
4. What lessons can you use when managing change in an organizational


Notes to instructors:
*The 3-week period is based on a common idea that it takes 21 days to change a

habit. Instructors may choose to vary (increase or decrease) the duration as they deem
fit. In an EMBA class that met once in two weeks, I modified the length to 2 weeks, i.e.,
the time between our meetings, without much difference in the reported experience.

**In the current form, there is no goal or end outcome suggested for two main rea-
sons. Outcomes may vary due to several reasons unrelated to the exercise. For exam-
ple, losing weight is not solely related to sugar consumption. Other lifestyle choices,
individual metabolic rates, etc. do influence the process. So measuring success/failure
may not be possible in a fair manner. In some instances, e.g., abstaining from social
media, there may not be a measurable outcome other than number of days of absti-
nence. More importantly, too much focus on the outcome could possibly lead to ignor-
ing the daily experiences. My intent with the exercise was to have a decent mix of
challenge vs. fun. Failing is not discouraged as long as students are critically thinking
about the reason for their failures.

***This requirement is to build accountability and offer support. In organizations,
supervisors and co-workers are typically called upon to play this role.

Varma 253

Appendix B

Grading Rubric for the Personal Change Exercise.


Change undertaken:

Criterion Grade


Diary writing Maintained and
reported daily
experiences for
all (21) days

Maintained and
reported daily
experiences for
almost all (17-20)

Maintained and
reported daily
experiences for
several (12-16)

Maintained and
reported daily
experiences for
a few (less than
11) days

Has not

Reflection Paper:
Key Takeaways
for Personal

Presents an
insightful and
analysis of
all issues
identified; Makes
and powerful
between the
issues identified
and the concepts
studied in the
course material;
and opinions
with strong
arguments and

Presents a
thorough analysis
of most issues
identified; Makes
between the
issues identified
and the concepts
studied in the
course material;
diagnosis and
opinions with
reasons and

Presents a good
analysis of some
of the issues
identified; Makes
appropriate but
somewhat vague
between the
issues and
studied in the
course material;
diagnosis and
opinions with
limited reasons
and evidence.

Presents an
analysis of the
issues identified;
Makes little or
no connection
the issues
identified and
the strategic
studied in the
course material;
diagnosis and
opinions with
few reasons and
little evidence.

Presents no
analysis of
the issues
Makes no
the issues
identified and
the concepts
studied in
the course
and opinions
with neither
reasons nor

Reflection Paper:
Key Learning for

Presents an
insightful and
analysis of
all issues
identified; Makes
and powerful
between the
issues identified
and the concepts
studied in the
course material;
and opinions
with strong
arguments and

Presents a
thorough analysis
of most issues
identified; Makes
between the
issues identified
and the concepts
studied in the
course material;
diagnosis and
opinions with
reasons and

Presents a good
analysis of some
of the issues
identified; Makes
appropriate but
somewhat vague
between the
issues and
studied in the
course material;
diagnosis and
opinions with
limited reasons
and evidence.

Presents an
analysis of the
issues identified;
Makes little or
no connection
the issues
identified and
the strategic
studied in the
course material;
diagnosis and
opinions with
few reasons and
little evidence.

Presents no
analysis of
the issues
Makes no
the issues
identified and
the concepts
studied in
the course
and opinions
with neither
reasons nor

254 Management Teaching Review 5(3)

Appendix C

Sample Daily Diary Entries

•• (Change attempted: No eating out for 3 weeks): I feel great about starting this
project so far. I am anxious to see how long I can maintain this and whether
there will be any physical or mental changes. It will require planning for meals
and workouts. I will need to learn to budget my time.

•• (Change attempted: No coffee for 3 weeks): I guess I should start by pointing
out that this weekend was the first weekend that I did not have coffee. It sucked.
I can say, however, that I did learn a lot about my habit this weekend. I learned
that I enjoy drinking coffee.

•• (Change attempted: Waking up an hour earlier for 3 weeks): The alarm is set.
Motivation is high. We will see how this goes. Besides, I have told my parents
and best friends about the change I am planning on starting tomorrow. I have
also posted my intents on social media.

Appendix D

Sample Responses for Overall Reactions

•• I really enjoyed this personal change project.
•• I do feel that this change assignment has given me a fresh perspective.
•• This project has helped me understand that change is not a simple task that can

be achieved overnight.
•• This project has definitely tested my ability to deal with change and manage the

emotions I experience while going through the change.
•• Overall, I think the project taught me quite a few things about myself.
•• I think an exercise like this is important to remind us to look deeper at motiva-

tions and the reasons people act as they do.
•• This project has been an eye-opening experience for me. My initial assumptions

about how things would turn out were completely wrong. I figured it would be
more of a challenge for me . . . In fact, the exact opposite occurred. I looked
forward each day to adding another day.

•• This was a great exercise to understand where some of my employees may be
in regards to change.

Appendix E

Sample Responses Regarding Change Experience, Challenge, and Keys
to Success

(With associated theoretical concepts/connections in parentheses)

•• (Change attempted: No candies/chocolates for 3 weeks): Another thing that
assists me in understanding change is that sharing the experience with other

Varma 255

people makes the change easier. Indeed, if we all have to do the same change
we can support each other, as colleagues would do in a company (peer support).
They can rely on them if one has doubt or questions; the peer atmosphere is a
major factor . . . as the end of the project arrived and that I managed not to eat
chocolate, hearing people saying they failed, make me feel better in a way

•• (Change attempted: No cursing for 3 weeks): This project has helped me under-
stand that change is not a simple task that can be achieved overnight. No matter
what change is being implemented, it takes time and practice before it can be
completed to the fullest (change implementation). It is critical for one to have a
support system that backs up and supports the transformation while it is being
implemented. Without a solid support system to help keep the change on track,
the progress will falter and may eventually fall apart altogether. If I had not told
my girlfriend and my roommate that I was going to be abstaining from cursing
over the past 3 weeks, I have no doubt in my mind that I would have given up
altogether on trying to refrain (peer support).

•• (Change attempted: No snacking/casual munching for 3 weeks): Looking back
at the past 3 weeks, 3 distinct trends come to mind when I think of the hardest
or unsuccessful times in my assignment . . . The first trend was not planning
ahead and being prepared (change planning) . . . The second I noticed was that
I was too focused on the end goal (outcome vs. process) . . . The third thing I
saw in my behavior through the week was that I often times put myself in a fail-
ing situation (self-sabotage).

Appendix F

Sample Responses for the Key Takeaways

(With associated theoretical concepts/connections in parentheses)

•• (Change attempted: No fast food for 3 weeks): Through the personal change
project, I realized that I would have done much better if I had set up a reward
system, so I think this is important when implementing organizational change
as well. If employees are motivated by a tangible reward after reaching certain
milestones in the change process, I think that it would make the change more
effective (Change Incentives/Small wins).

•• (Change attempted: No carbonated drinks for 3 weeks): Once I realized that
cutting out soft drinks would help me lose weight and develop my self-disci-
pline, the project’s change process became exponentially easier to accept and
work through (Personal valence).

•• (Change attempted: No multitasking for 3 weeks): What I learned from this
project is that change is something which is really difficult to handle. People
should not be afraid of change because it brings benefits. However, managers
must be very good at communicating change and show the positive effects of

256 Management Teaching Review 5(3)

implementing the change if they want their employees to be motivated and
inclined to change (Change communication).

•• (Change attempted: No unnecessary internet browsing for 3 weeks): I realized
that the actual amount of difficulty that a person encounters when implement-
ing a change could be vastly different from the level of difficulty estimated by
others (change experience is personal). This applies whether or not the task is
perceived to be simple or complex.

Appendix G

Sample Responses for Organizational Change Implications

(With associated theoretical concepts/connections in parentheses)

•• Members of an organization may not be ready to accept the change. The project
was not something I wanted to do even though I knew it would better me if I
were successful. For the project I had to find a way to convince myself to move
forward with the changes that were made for the sake of the project. This is the
same thing with an organization; management needs to communicate the rea-
sons why change needs to take place (Change communication). This needs to
be done within the organization to ensure employees not only do not reject
change but also accept the change.

•• This experience has taught me a few things about change in the workplace. The
first lesson is that no change is really too small to overlook and assume it will
not matter to employees. Next it made me question as to whether some changes
would not be suitable for some of our more experienced employees who had
been performing the same job for years (Change appropriateness).

•• If I ever become a manager, I hope that I can keep this in mind. Not all employ-
ees will handle changes in the same way. People will react differently based on
their intrinsic behaviors and their backgrounds. I think in future I will have
patience with people who need a little more time or assistance adjusting because
I know how difficult change can be, and I have been there myself (Individual

•• Reminding myself as to why this project was necessary and the benefits I could
get from making it through the entire project without breaking my abstinence
from soft drinks can be beneficial to me in implementing change in the future
because I will know how to approach motivating employees through the change
process. I would need to convince employees why change is necessary and how
implementing this change will cause the business to be more successful going
forward. Convincing employees of the importance of this change can go a long
way toward getting them to buy into the change process (Creating readiness/

•• In a managerial aspect, I will use this research of myself to better understand
my employees going through change. It is ok for them to resist change and even

Varma 257

relapse on their goals, but they should make ongoing progress to meet the
change goal. I believe this will also earn their respect when they see that I am
tolerant of their resistance to change because I know how it feels to experience
this change effort . . . Now I have more understanding of what it means to
change, on both a physical and psychological level (Change resistance).

•• One final consideration that this project helped me to understand better is what
will happen after the change is implemented. I know that the personal change
challenge we did was only supposed to be temporary, but I plan on eating all of
the sweets I want whenever I want when this is over. Basically, this personal
change project did not curtail my desire to have sweets or abstain from eating
them in the future after the challenge is over. I think this is a good point that
organizations should think about when implementing change. Organizations
should monitor employees even after the change has been implemented and
they have been following the change for a while because there is a chance that
after all of the organization’s hard work in implementing the change, employees
could revert back to their old ways of doing things if they are not being moni-
tored. This would undermine the effects of the change, and lots of time, money,
and resources that were used to implement the change could be wasted if this
happens (Institutionalizing change).

Author’s Note

An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2017 Southern Management Association
Annual Meeting in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida. I am grateful to MTR editor-in-chief Jane
Schmidt-Wilk, associate editor Sandra Spataro, and two anonymous reviewers whose com-
ments and guidance substantially improved this article.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.


The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this


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