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Employee Resistance in the Workplace Essay

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Although employee resistance and managerial control are core processes at the workplace, their operation tends to be by and large concealed and as such, it is quite hard to observe (Prasad & Prasad 2000, p. 1). When the two core processes are run smoothly, this results in enhanced production efficiencies.

On the other hand, contends that “awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men” (Taylor 1911, p. 1) can be a cause of the non-effective production process. Nonetheless, the above statement is a general way of demonising resistance and it does not even consider that resistance can be potentially constructive.

The simple way in which resistance has been treated by conventional management theories has received criticism from modern management theories. In this case, these modern theories indicate that through proper harnessing, resistance can in fact benefit an organisation.

In an attempt to examine the issue of employee resistance in the workplace, the essay shall first examine why resistance exists, and the various techniques of resistance experienced in the workplace (Waddell & Sohal 1998). In addition, the essay shall also attempt to explore the positive and negative impacts of resistance (Rudge, 1990).

Finally, the essay shall discuss a number of managerial practices as they impact on resistance in the workplace (Mydans 2009). Through an in-depth analysis of the aforementioned sections, the essay shall in fact attempt to show that to a certain extent, management may be responsible for resistance in the workplace.

With proper harnessing however, resistance need not be destructive for an organisation because by properly harnessing it, management can be able to do away with dissent.

Reasons for employees’ resistance

The very act of employee resistance appears to contradict the unitarism theory of management which holds that organisations should remain fully unchallenged. On the other hand, it symbolises the problem of urgency whereby an employer provides minimal wages but still expect the greatest labour. This results in a huge gap between the expectations of the management and those of the employees.

In a bid to bridge this gap, the management might deem it necessary to institute certain management techniques in a bid to pressurise employees to yield to their demands. In this case, the goal is to enhance employees’ productivity at no extra cost (Pullen 2006).

In addition, there is also the institutionalisation of corporate ethics and culture. Consequently, these pressures, in combination or in isolation, stimulate resistance. Resistance is indicative of the employees’ concerns and the health of the management (Prasad & Prasad 2000, p. 388).

Milgram (1974) argues that we need to review the elements of resistance, deconstruct them, and make room for obedience. On the other hand, Weddell & Sohal (1998) have endeavoured to study resistance from a prospective point of view.

Whereas management resistance endevour to show flaws in the status quo or managerial process, on the other hand, political resistance tries to “score points” against superiors or equals (Strategic Direction, 2002, p. 21).

True resistance alone cannot be caused by dissatisfaction; it can only result in dissent (Weddell & Sohal 1998, pp. 434-435). In addition to assessing the reasons for employee resistance, it would also be fitting to explore resistance techniques.

The key areas to assess in categorising resistance include its conformity with the organisation’s legal, ethical and social frameworks, as well as how it acts to establish new spheres of influence. Rosen (1988) has endevoured to provide us with a sound example of institutionalised dissent by way of presenting an analysis of the corporate Christmas party analysis. The author manages to establish a “steam valve effect”.

The author borrows heavily from Turner (1974) who notes that hierarchy “is all that apart, defines their differences, and constrains their actions” (Turner, 1974, p. 54). This is a clear sign that the management is privy to the strain that emanates from their hierarchy.

In an attempt to counter this, employee have the privilege of wearing Christmas party skits with the full blessings of the management. This symbolises social order subversion within an institution.

Effects of resistance

Effects of resistance, and not the motivation or cause, places the management in a dilemma. While approaching management issues, classic management calls for the use of the Unitarist theory. In this, organisations ought to enjoy complete solidarity. However, Unitarists underscore the negative impacts of resistance.

Unitarists support “Fordism” while “Toyotism” has been embraced by contemporary management theorists (Peaucelle, 2000). The author further opines that resistance is inevitable and as such, organisations needs to harness and manage it and derive the ensuing benefits.

On the basis of the foregoing arguments, there is the need to examine how resistance affects an organisation whether negatively or positively. The theories of Ackoff (1994) and Milgram (1974) and Taylor (1911) acts as a springboard to for launching an examination of how resistance affects an organisation negatively.

Taylor provides a superficial theory in his view of resistance as an indication of reduced productivity. Taylor has derived productivity form these production phases, each of which demands a different level of absolute efficiency (Taylor, 1911, p. 2).

In this case, any form of resistance (or what Taylor calls the “ill directed movements of men” (Taylor, 1911, p. 1) is an attempt to alter this scientific and absolute efficiency, resulting in a huge opportunity cost for resistance. It is important to note that conventional managers have tried to avoid this opportunity cost for resistance.

Milgram examines how resistance results in reduced disobedience of the workforce. On the other hand, Ackoff (1994) notes that resistance enhances the “power over” of an organisation in as far as the management concerned (p. 112), at the expense of leadership.

Milgram (1974) highlights the Binding Factors that make up resistance. They include, respect for the superiors, fear of the status quo and the ramifications of resistance. The Binding Factors are useful in that they help to reduce resistance forces. In addition, their also increase the ability of employees to resist change. Milgram also conducted experiments that supported the theory.

These experiments revealed a significant reduction in the levels of obedience of the subjects in response to changing management, dissent, and contradictions (by as much as 55% between Experiment 1 and Experiment 17). Ackoff (1994) opines that as resistance increases, domination increases as well.

As such, resistance hinders the hitherto dominant workplace equilibrium. There are several positive effects related to resistance, among them are the “steam valve effects” (Milgram, 1974), “increased communication”, as it is stated in Rudge (1990), and one more important effect that should be taken into consideration is enhanced productivity linked to “volunteerism” (Milgram, 1974), and, of course, the “innovation effect” (Rudge, 1990).

Taking into account the higher level of skills possessed by workers, managers should no longer be charged with the responsibility of implementing a given static production system. Instead, Denimg (1992) proposes that managers should be charged with the responsibility of enforcing inefficient production, setting quality goals, and productivity (p. 1).

In addition, managers should lead their workforce by example in ensuring that they teach them how problems should be solved (Lennie 1999). Resistance may yield improved innovations in the workplace, as long as there is the right motivation to do so.

Deming (1982), while studying the Nashua Corporation, notes that the chemists and engineers at this factors managed to utilise less volumes of coating materials by employing creative and innovative techniques (p. 11).

This is a sign that one of the positive effects of resistance to an organisation is increased effectiveness and efficiency (Dale & Burrell 2000). As Rudge (1990) notes, majority of the organisational structures have vertical communication system and when resistance comes in this paves way for multi-level communication (pp. 210- 231).

Even as Milgram predicated that resistance can only beget more resistance, on the other hand, his model likes the positive impacts of resistance to a “steam valve” that helps to rid of angst and pressure within the organisation, albeit in a comparatively harmless manner.

Moreover, the Agentic State calls for unquestioning moral dissociation and obedience and these aspects do not always mirror the organisation’s best interest. According to Dale (2001), an organisation is psychotic, uncontrolled and psychopathic.

If an employee manages to break the Agentic Cycle, he/she can assess the external actions of an organisation (Milgram, 1974, pp. 179-190). Much of the productive success at Toyota is associated with the decision by management to embrace “resistance” based production.

In this case, the company encourages the employees to embrace an external point of view while reflecting on organisation and production process (Brown, 2004, p. 2). Besides, an employee is in a better position to assess his/her own ideas and intentions for strong decisions even without having to rely on superiors and fellow workers (Jackall, 1988, p. 76).

Separately, Deming (1982) argues that organisations are likely to benefit from increased volunteerism, thanks to the freedom of resistance (p. 3). As such, an organisation stands to benefit from a number of positive effects through resistance such as communication, innovation and increased morality, as opposed to enforced work ethic, and reduced strain.

Although there are various negative and positive effects of resistance, nonetheless, the tremendous rise in productivity via resistance more than compensates for the negative effects, and more so because allowing for formal channels for dissent as opposed to enabling “ informal routine forms of resistance [which are]… less visible” (Prasad & Prasad, 2000, pp. 1, 2) result in better control.

Harnessing resistance

Doing routine tasks leads to boredom and this is likely to de-motivate the employees. On the other hand, lack of diversity and differentiation is likely to result in resistance (Cohen & Taylor 1992). To a certain extent, management could be seen as responsible for resistance. For example, an organisation that practices “Taylorism” (that is, ‘do the job my way’) criminalises individuality and creativity.

In addition, corporate culture demands that employees think according to how the management would want, as opposed to how they would want to think. In case they try to think differently, this is often seen as a form of resistance. Familiarity and habits are responsible for the lack of enthusiasm towards change among employees in the workplace.

Managers should learn how best to manage resistance since failed change efforts come at a cost to the organisation (Cohen & Taylor 1992). There are various techniques that managers can employ in organisations to gain confidence and cooperation from workers, effectively reducing resistance.

One of the main strategies is the reward structure regulation (Rothschild & Miethe 1994). Effective managers do not go for the direct techniques of gaining compliance such as firing, promotions, and raises.

Because they are aware that these are just quick fixes, they instead opt for social influence or persuasion techniques that include negotiations and discussions. Nonetheless, they should not be seen to misuse the power at their disposal.

Both staff and management do not fully understand how power works and as such, instead of treating it as a form of association with others, they view it as an individual possession. As a result, they try to deny or ignore the fact that ultimately, they rely on staff.

They therefore resort to coercive power. On the other hand, employees react through coercive strategies as well. A vicious circle thus ensues and it greatly hinders any potential for productive relationships between staff and management (Knight & Roberts 1982, p. 47).

Rudge (1990) has subdivided the different ways in which an organisation can handle resistance. The author presents the traditional, classical, human relations, charismatic and systemic management theories and how they respond to resistance.

Therefore, they are unproductive, immoral, and non-reflective. On the other hand, the human relations and systemic theories employ respect and volunteerism as a way of minimising feelings of negativity within an organisation. In addition, the two theories have comparatively selfless purposes. Moreover, the two theories also make room for formal dissent, resulting in improved productivity and happiness within the organisations (Rudge, 1990, pp. 211-231).

Taking into account the resilience that characterises resistance, discouraging it becomes even more difficult. Ezzamel, Willmott and Worthington (2001) argue that an emotionally charged concern by an organisation to preserve its self-identity may induce resistance.

It is important for management to remain comfortable with dissent and the associated irrationality. This is a less tangible or visible target as opposed to trying to understand the issue of employee resistance. This just goes to show the difficulty we would have to encounter if we tried to crush dissent.

There are positive effects associated with harnessing resistance. In contrast, if we decided to crush resistance once and for all, we may end up antagonising colleagues of those who have put up the resistance in the process. In the end, we only worsen the situation.

Only a handful of textbooks and management journals have dwelt on labour process theory. Even when referenced, authors usually link it to the criticism of Taylorism as documented by Braverman (1974). The mainstream management theory tries to explain the horizontal and vertical divisions of labour within a capitalist enterprise in the realm of functional contributions to productivity or efficiency.

On the other hand, labour process theory looks at these divisions in terms of a structural antagonism evident in the ensuing struggles between providers of labour on the one hand who are trying hard to get hold of gainful employment and on the other hand, management agents and owners who are concerned with not only security capital accumulation, but also in sustaining it (Braverman 1974).

On the basis of the latter context, managers are not simply employed to harmonise complex work processes. Instead, the hiring of managers is with a view to ensuring the attainment of adequate productive efforts and in the end sees to it that labour results in the sale of services and goods to accumulate capital.

There is endemic conflict between workers (wages) and owners (dividends) regarding the distribution of surplus, as well as how the work in the organisation has been designed to ensure surplus production. Nonetheless, such a conflict is time and again institutionalised or suppressed with the result that it is rarely manifested in industrial action.

Labour process analysis is geared towards examining the exploitation of employees in the workplace. Therefore, it takes into account the perception of an individual on how these structures should be enacted (Ezzamel et al. 2001, p. 1060).

Such processes are only concerned with individuals as long as they symbolize certain economic categories. However, there is a drawback to this particular stance because it marginalizes or excludes the importance of the daily dynamics of “class struggle” as explained by management control and worker resistance, in trying to condition worker consent or while designing work.

In this regard, it fails to consider for example, the anticipated or actual resistance by workers to specific types of controls.

Managers can favour a specific management strategy because it provides them with a means of postponing or accommodating “the contradictory of self-destructive forces” of capital accumulation. Since they have become accustomed to such a management strategy, they are frequently drawn towards it.

In the same way, employees could devise or favour lines of security, ideological or political values that would best suit their interests. Giddens (1984) contents that the ‘capability’ and ‘knowledgeability’ of human agents are more concerned with the courses of action that may help them to secure self-identity, as opposed to spoiling or threatening it.

The structured antagonisms between on the one hand, labour and on the other hand, capital, acts as a source of pressure to the mangers in the workplace to either refine or strengthen the means of control. In contrast, the antagonism pressures the employees to develop or bolster forms of resistance.

Various stages of interpretation are thus required to help recognize, examine, and attend to these pressures. As such through ‘traditions and understandings’ we can be able to mediate relations between say, managers, and shopfloor workers.


The current essay was an attempt to explore the truthfulness (or lack of) the idea that managers “should try to eliminate the resistance of employers”, as it is one of the most “destructive issues” that can cause ineffective production.

Based on the foregoing arguments on reasons for employee resistance, the effects of resistance in the workplace and how to harness it, the essay proves the statement wrong. To start with, the essay examines the reasons why there is resistance in the workplace, along with the various techniques of resistance.

It therefore emerges that resistance in the workplace occurs for credible reason and as such, it is not baseless, as evidenced by the informative methods of resistance and reasons for dissent. In addition, there is ample evidence in the essay to show that there is more to resistance in the workplace than mere destruction.

Although several negative effects of resistance in the workplace emerged, nonetheless, through the application of the official means of resistance, it is quite possible to control them. In the final section of the essay, the various management techniques as they impact on resistance in the workplace have been evaluated.

What emerges then is that employees who embrace resistance are more likely to be productive in comparison with their counterparts who are yet to embrace resistance. In addition, they are also likely to possess higher moral; ethics, and be open to others.

On the other hand, it is important to underscore the fact that the essay has pinpointed the difficulty associated with eradicating resistance fully from an organisation, further arguing that the management can hardly be able to achieve this goal. As such, most of the time, resistance tends to be positive, as opposed to negative. In any case, management has found it rather hard to crust resistance in the workplace.

Antagonism between labuor and capital is a constant source of conflict between employees and the management. Use of coercive power by management forces the staff to also employ coercive defensive strategies, resulting in a vicious circle.

Managers and employees alike should be good readers of resistance to enhance a better understanding of its meaning, causes, effects, and eventually, more powerful workplaces.

Reference List

Ackoff, R. L., 1994. The Democratic Corporation – A Radical Prescription for Recreating Corporate America and Rediscovering Success. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Braverman, H., 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Brown, L. M., 2004. A Review of J.K. Liker’s “The Toyota Way”. Business Book Review 21 (12).

Cohen, S., & Taylor, L., 1992. Escape attempts: the theory and practice of resistance to everyday life. New York: Routledge.

Dale, K., 2001. Anatomising Organization Theory, London: Palgrave.

Dale, K., and Burrell, G., 2000. What shape are we in? Organization theory and the organized body. In: J. Hassard; R. Holliday, and H. Willmott (Eds.). Body and Organization. London: Sage.

Deming, W. E., 1982. Out of the Crisis. Cambridge, Mass: Massachussets Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study.

Ezzamel, M., Willmott, H., & Worthington, F., 2001. Power, Control and Resistance in ‘The Factory that Time Forgot’. Journal of Management Studies , 38 (8), pp.1053-1079.

Giddens, A., 1984. The Constitution of Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jackall, R.,1988. Looking up and looking around. In: R. Jackall, Moral mazes: the world of corporate managers (pp. 75-100). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Knights, D., & Roberts, J., 1982. The power of organization or the organization of power. Organisation studies, 3(1), 47- 63.

Lennie, I.,1999. Beyond Management. London: Sage.

Milgram, S., 1974. Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

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Peaucelle, J.-L., 2000. From Taylorism to post-Taylorism. Journal of Organizational Change Management , 13 (5), pp. 452-467.

Prasad, P., & Prasad, A., 2000. Stretching the Iron Cage: The Constitution and Implications of Routine Workplace Resistance. Organizational Science, 11 (4), pp. 387-403.

Pullen, A., 2006. Managing Identity. London: Palgrave.

Rothschild, J., & Miethe,T. D., 1994. Whistleblowing as resistance in modern work organizations: The politics of revealing organizational deception and abuse. London: Sage.

Rosen, M.,1988. You asked for it: Christmas at the bosses’ expense. Journal of Management Studies , 25 (5), pp. 463-480.

Rudge, P. F., 1990. Order and Disorder in Organisations. Kambah: Pirie Printers.

Strategic Direction., 2002. Resistance to change: enemy or ally? Strategic Direction , 18 (6), pp. 21-23.

Taylor, F. W., 1911. The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper Brothers.

Waddell, D., & Sohal, A. S., 1998. Resistance: a constructive tool for change management. Management Decision , 36 (8), pp. 543-528.

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