The phrase “People hate change” is absurd.

When I hear that phrase used, the person using it instantly loses respect points with me.

Okay, they get points syntactically for a simple subject-verb-object construction because I’m willing to admit there are times when plain English wins over obfuscation. But they lose points semantically for failing to understand the complexity of human nature.

Let me break it down for you. (With overdue thanks Dr Kate, my undergrad Linguistics Professor for enabling this semantic analysis!)

I’ll start with the object, that is “change”. The word “change” gets used like a mass noun. Mass nouns, when used, signify all items of the class. So let me do a few simple replacements and see how they sit with you.

“People hate life.”
“People hate help.”
“People hate sheep.”

Maybe those ones seem absurd to you.

The word “all” is known linguistically as a quantifier. You’ll know other quantifiers like “some”, “many”, and “few”.

When there is no quantifier present, the implication is that “All” is missing/applies. So our phrase becomes:

“People hate (all) change.”

And what “change” are you talking about, when you make this claim?

The seasons are one example of (external) change and I know people who love the seasons. ‘Growing up’ is one example of (internal) change and I know people who love growing up and attaining the wisdom and privileges that it can bring. ‘Moving on’ is an example of (external and internal) change, and I know many many people who want this right now!

I wrote previously about a proposed typology for change to expand our collective literacy in appreciating ‘not all change is the same’. (See article, Are we talking about the same thing? A typology for change)

Let’s turn out attention to the subject, “People”. A mass noun! Similarly without an explicit quantifier, so the implication is thus:

“(All) people hate (all) change.”

Now I’m a person, a member of the class People, and the verb-phrase, “hate (all) change” is not true for me. I actually have some pretty strong positive emotions to (some) change. So on that simple aspect alone, the statement “People hate change” is invalid while I am alive on this planet. I do believe I am not alone, so this statement will be true even if/when I’m not alive.

Now turning attention to the verb “hate”. In the spectrum of emotions, “hate” sits in the subclass of negative emotions, and it’s at the high intensity end of one kind of emotion.

So the statement becomes:

“(All) people (have high levels of intensity for the negative emotion) hate (for all) change.”

Is this starting to feel absurd to you?

I personally reserve the intensity of “hate” for things that really deserve it. “(All) change” does not qualify. In fact, I experience a wide range of negative and positive emotions towards “change”, like I similarly do for “life”, “help” and “sheep”.

So back to the object, “change”. There are many kinds of change. I’m willing to accept the possibility of universal truth in this statement:

“(All) people hate (some) change.”

We might even reach a strong consensus with this refinement:

“(All) people hate imposed change that has no meaning for them.”
“(All) people experience some negative emotion(s) for imposed change that has no meaning for them.”

Alas, the word count has gone up; the simple three-word catchphrase has disappeared. Though arguably we’ve found something far more meaningful and useful to parse, if your objective is to consider ways to help people who are in changing states.

While “hate” is one form of agency I can express towards “change”, “resist” is also another form of agency in my human repertoire. And if you try to “manage my resistance”, you’ve got a nasty surprise coming. There are types of change where my resistance is valid, and even applauded. Hands up anyone who signed a petition, or participated in a march. You were resisting a status quo, or a vector of change that wasn’t going somewhere you liked. Good on you! (See article, Change the things I cannot accept – in support of resistance)

And if I, an intelligent caring emotionally mature adult appear to be resisting an organisational change, you’d better have a conversation with me adult-to-adult to make sense with me. If you fall into the trap of believing that any question or dissent from me is immediately interpreted as full-on resistance, then you’ll see some other agency from my repertoire enacted, and chances are high, I will leave.

In the article I wrote about Types of change, I connected each of types to different forms of human agency. You can do your own sense-making – and you should – about which emotions at which intensity, different changes mean for you.

If you take anything away from this article, then have and enable more sensemaking conversations with people who are the target of a change initiative.

And do not believe the simplistic lie that, “People hate change”.


Helen Palmer is Founder and Team Development Facilitator at Questo. Like Winnie the Pooh, she ‘sits and thinks’ … and imagines how people – especially those in teams – can make a better life for others and themselves. She likes to share those thoughts with the possibility that they inspire and initiate meaningful change.


(Amended) Photo by Håkon Grimstad on Unsplash

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