Dealing with Resistance: A Leader’s Achilles’ Heel

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for most leaders  is overcoming resistance to major change initiatives from within the organization. The key to understanding resistance is to realize that it is a predictable, natural and necessary emotional response – an inevitable part of learning to accept change. Resistance is not the threat; ignoring it is. It isn’t a noxious gas that needs to be extinguished but rather a valuable form of feedback in times of uncertainty.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, people don’t resist change.  Rather, they resist the negative perception that the proposed change might have on them and their routines. Resistance is simply a consequence of a perceived loss of control, a sense of vulnerability or a reluctance to change habitual behaviours. Resistance can be either active or passive. The latter is the worst kind. Like carbon monoxide, you may not see it or smell it, but eventually it will kill you. The antidote is to get it out in the open where you can deal with it.

Resistance is acted out in many ways.  It can be described as stonewalling, foot dragging, lack of buy-in, push back or just a “ton of questions.” It can run the gamut, perceptually, from an innocent question or a roll of the eyes to subversive behaviours or even sabotage. Active resistance includes deliberate opposition, sullen hostility, agitating others, denial, not reporting problems, chronic complaints and a planned reduction in productivity. Passive resistance can be withholding information, not supporting initiatives, over-complicating the new way and diminished enthusiasm, as in “but we’ve always done it this way.”

People resist change for a variety of reasons  ranging from enlightened self-interest and a desire to preserve the past to a genuine concern for the organization. Resisters might oppose your change agenda because they see it as more work, feel incompetent in performing new tasks (“it just doesn’t feel right”), don’t see or fully comprehend the reasons for change or just because they believe, probably from past experience, that “this too shall pass.”

You cannot talk people out of how they are feeling.  Resistance is the indirect expression of hidden reservations and concerns as well as outright confusion. But feelings pass and are altered when they are allowed to be expressed openly. When you choose to fight the resistance, all you likely succeed in doing is to energize, legitimize and intensify it.

Smart leaders deal with resistance differently  than those who are vexed, annoyed or confused by the challenge. Simply stated, their attitude is one of engagement, not dismissal. They ask “if I viewed this as useful feedback, what might I learn from it?” Minimally, they discover what the resisters don’t know. Optimally, they learn what they don’t know, but should.

Resisters can also be a useful source of alternative ideas  borne of devil’s advocacy or heretical thinking. And they do possess an uncanny capacity to point out faulty assumptions or missing pieces in the plan. Resistance can bring needed perspective to unbridled optimism.

Remember too that most resisters have “been there before.”  These valuable history lessons can enable leaders to better understand the prevailing concerns and biases within the workforce, thereby aiding the diagnosis of an ingrained layer of immunity to accepting new ways of doing things. This type of immunity is cultural and the antithesis of innovation. Hence, the very act of empathic listening or offering some recognition of past errors could be sufficient to put needed salve on open wounds.

Smart leaders use resistance to advantage  by seeing it as a way to:

  • Keep the conversation about the need to change alive and ongoing.
  • Increase their understanding of critical operational issues and challenges.
  • Engage people in a meaningful discussion about why the change is necessary.
  • Reduce worries in the workplace that affect everyone’s stress level.

Engaging resisters can help build one’s credibility  in the eyes of the team – an opportunity to be seen as open-minded, respectful and receptive to all points of view. You are more likely to get buy-in to your ideas when you demonstrate a willingness to listen to theirs. Many resisters simply want to be heard.

Should you judge the resistance to be invalid,  you must be mindful of these steps:

  • Never take the resistance personally.
  • Distinguish between willingness and ability – some resisters may be willing but lack the skills or knowledge needed to respond as you wish.
  • Listen to (don’t judge) their feelings as much as their words. Be supportive, accept emotional displays and allow venting but do not tolerate counterproductive behaviours.
  • Verbally identify the specific form the resistance is taking, stating it in neutral, precise and concise (observable), value-free, non-threatening words.
  • Be realistic with your advice, directions or promises. Offer your instructions slowly and carefully, then check for understanding. Be patient. Don’t sugar coat it and never get defensive.

The lesson is this: don’t see resistance as a problem;  frame it as an opportunity. How you deal with resistance as a leader will make you either vulnerable or stronger. The goal is not necessarily to agree or capitulate but to engage and be better informed. In the process, you may discover that resisters are not enemies but rather the ones bold enough or who care enough to speak truth to power about the pitfalls in the change strategy.