People flying on arrows with one flying in the opposite direction

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Studies of top UK law firms show why organisational change can meet resistance even when employees support it

Changes in societal values are increasingly reflected in workplace practices in the 21st century. Efforts to optimise work-life balance by deploying practices such as parental leave and flexi-working – trends that gained huge momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic – are today front of mind for HR functions across a raft of sectors and industries. And, for many, this shift constitutes a very welcome change.  

But change – even when it’s for the general good of employees and they desire it – can meet with resistance. When push comes to shove, employees perceive the change as a threat to long-standing and highly rigid working structures or cultures.  

Take law firms.  

Most high-performing law practices in the UK and elsewhere operate internal promotion systems that have been traditionally enshrined by a set of tight, relatively inflexible values. Junior lawyers coming into these firms are expected to make it to partner – or out. Making partner is the prime measure of professional success in the legal profession. But it comes at a cost. There’s a tacit understanding that ambitious young lawyers will be willing to forego certain private or personal commitments – family, social life and so on – to focus on getting to the top.  

the very values that have been ingrained for so long within the organisation [have] become obstacles in themselves

As a dynamic, this is very much at odds with better work-life balance. And it has seen many talented lawyers – particularly women – leave the sector and abandon their careers in their droves over recent years. A UK-wide survey of associates revealed that less than 40 per cent of junior associates are willing to pursue the promotion path to partner because of the gruelling hours and sacrifices in their family lives.  

To attenuate the churn and improve work-life balance for staff, some leading UK law firms opted to reconfigure the promotion pyramid within their organisations. They introduced the role of “counsel” – a high status role between senior associate and partner. Counsel simultaneously offered the status of a senior role without the relentless slog and sacrifice associated with making partner.  

Yet, as apt and welcome a solution as this new role might appear, the associates resisted.  

Together with colleagues from Smeal College of Business at Penn State, and Oxford Saïd, we conducted 67 in-depth interviews with associates, partners, managing partners, counsel and HR directors at six elite UK firms to find out why. 

The new role... challenged long-standing and deeply held values that characterise the professional culture and structure

We wanted to really unpack what was going on; how this kind of change resistance manifests and what change agents in these firms were doing to address it. What we found was that, while there was a strong appetite for change to the promotion pyramid system, the change itself was “jarring”; in other words, it worked so strongly against the traditional values of the firms that it generated strong resistance.  

The new role was ostensibly a great solution from the firms’ perspective to address work-life balance concerns and retain valuable talent, but it challenged long-standing and deeply held values that characterise the professional culture and structure. And that was a major sticking point for people. They did not want to risk change that undermined traditional workplace values – and be judged or compromised for doing so. So they resisted it. 

We found three ways in which value-based resistance manifests.  

Talking to HR directors, we also identified three responses or tactics they used to successfully resolve them – tactics that can be adopted and successfully implemented by change agents to handle resistance to practices introduced to address other grand challenges, including race inequality, gender inequality and environmental sustainability. 

1. Irreconcilability-type resistance 

When change posits one set of values that seem irreconcilable with another, we pit the two things against each other so that only one can prevail. The counsel role, for instance, was seen by some as privileging family over professional goals; professional status was seen as irreconcilable with being present for family.  

In the study, the associates were petrified of expressing open support for a role that suggested they valued family over their job and saw the two things as being completely irreconcilable and at odds. 

To tackle this, astute HR directors recast the counsel role as not the end of the road to partnership but a function of an ongoing journey in professional development. In this way, they were redirecting people to think of the role as a choice; it gave them more control in how they wanted to progress in their careers, and that was empowering. 

2.  Contradiction-type resistance  

Some types of change can posit a contradiction between what appears to be good and desirable for the organisation, and what’s good and desirable for the individual.  

The partners could see the need for more senior roles as these top firms were growing, demanding a greater diversity of skills and talents. At the same time, they perceived a contradiction between firm strategy and personal career strategy of young ambitious lawyers. 

To combat this, HR directors used a “reassuring” tactic: they reassured partners the two goals were not competing because counsel would be a very small proportion (keeping the number vague) to ensure both the personal professional development of senior associates and firm growth strategy could be simultaneously in play.  

3. Ambiguity-type resistance  

A lack of clarity or transparency around change can also engender resistance.  

The young lawyers were quite reasonably concerned the counsel role was essentially the same job as partner, but that it didn’t pay the same. Or they saw the role as essentially a refined associate. They didn’t understand where they would sit in the organisation. And, significantly, they worried it clashed with the firms’ values of effort-reward equity. Partners worried the role of counsel risked compromising quality in the eyes of clients. 

HR directors were able to pick up on the values being expressed by these associates and address their concerns by wrapping more rigour, clarity and distinction around all roles in the professional hierarchy.  

What worked well here was saying to associates: “Yes, we hear you and you are absolutely right. So we’re going to prioritise better systems and procedures around this role to maintain clear distinction and responsibility.” 

less than 40 per cent of junior associates are willing to pursue the promotion path to partner

Pulling all of this together, we find that change agents who successfully tackle employees’ desire for change but a fear of expressing open support for it are tapping into the same “value toolkit” that the organisation itself holds. These are change agents who understand the resistance being manifested by employees stems from the very values that have been ingrained for so long within the organisation that they become obstacles in themselves. Overcoming this means finding the right ways to reframe change as legitimate.  

When change goes to the core of deeply rooted organisational values – legacy values that in some ways define the organisation – you have to tackle suspicion on the part of employees. It’s natural for people to want to keep beneath the radar out of fear of being judged or criticised in some way. Astute change agents will understand this and find ways to tap into the full smorgasbord of organisational values to shift mindsets and get people unstuck.  

And this is true of any organisation, industry or sector – legal and others. 

This article draws on findings from "Handling Resistance to Change When Societal and Workplace Logics Conflict" by Namrata Malhotra (Imperial College Business School), Charlene Zietsma (Smeal College of Business, Penn State University), Timothy Morris (Säid Business School, University of Oxford) and Michael Smets (Säid Business School, University of Oxford), published in Administrative Science Quarterly.

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Namrata Malhotra

About Namrata Malhotra

Associate Professor in Strategy
Dr Namrata Malhotra is an Associate Professor of Strategy in the Department of Management. Her research interests lie in the areas of organizational change and institutional change, drawing on both organizational theory and strategy. She also teaches an Executive Education course.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Profile