How To Better Anticipate—And Deal With—With Resistance To Change

Change never occurs in a vacuum. Neither does resistance to change. Both occur in the context of real people struggling with real (or imagined) issues that have real (or imagined) consequences. Change takes us out of our comfort zones and produces stress. It's often the stress that people resist, not the change itself. Even positive change produces stress. Just ask anyone who's planned a wedding.

Just like tornadoes and other forms of rough weather, resistance comes with its own set of early warning signs:

Confusion

No matter how carefully you've tried to make a case for your change, some people won't get it. It's not that they're trying to give you a hard time. They just don't yet understand the implications of the change you're proposing. They'll often ask questions like "So, why are we doing this?" "How is this going to impact my budget?" "What will this do to my reporting relationships?" "What will this mean for my current situation?" In other words, "What's In It For Me?" Don't be troubled by this. Expect it. People have a natural tendency to absorb information that reinforces their current paradigms and filter out data that contradict—or threaten—their current views or situations. Be patient. You'll likely need to explain your change plans over and over and over again.

Silence

You make your presentation and people sit in stone silence. Are they stunned by your brilliance? Do they unanimously agree with you? Are they simply too shy to talk? Silence can be tough to handle because it's sort of like lassoing a cloud. Never assume that silence means acceptance. Silence can mean acceptance, but it can also mean anything from "I don't have a clue what you're talking about" to "I'll do what you're asking only when hell freezes over." One way to prime the discussion pump is to answer a series of unasked questions—real questions that you anticipate people might want to ask but are afraid they'll come across as impertinent or misinformed or just plain stupid.

Easy Agreement

Some people may agree with you without hesitation. That may seem ideal, but you need to be sure they understand the implications of the change you're championing. Don't simply make a presentation and expect people to click their heels and salute. Be sure to engage people in genuine dialogue. Otherwise you risk their swallowing your message whole without fully digesting it, realizing only later that it gave them heartburn.

Denial

The ostrich effect (head in the sand) is a common behavior of people confronted by the need to change. Denial can take many forms: "The foam coming off the wings during launch poses no threat to the space shuttle." "Germs are a myth. Washing my hands between surgeries is a nuisance." "That survey finding doesn't really apply to me and my group."
How do you deal with denial?

Malicious Compliance

A couple of Army privates were ordered by an overbearing officer to paint a room "all white." The officer’s self-important manner was particularly obnoxious, so the young enlisted men decided to engage in malicious compliance—obeying the order to the absolute letter. They indeed painted the room "all white," including the floor, the ceiling, the window panes, the doors and door knobs, the desk, the chairs, the telephone, and even the light switches. Double-coated, exactly as ordered.

What's an example of this in the office? How do you deal with it as a manager?

Diversion

Many resisters are from the Yeahbut Tribe— "Yeah, but this won't work because …" "Yeah, but you didn't consider …" "Yeah, but the reason I can't do this is …" Diversionary tactics include scapegoating, rehashing the past, and telling victim, villain, and helpless stories. Diversions often occur in meetings where people flit like nervous flees from one subject to another. Some diversions are no doubt deliberate, but many are unconscious. Unless you recognize them for what they are and address them squarely, they will stall your change into oblivion.

Watch for these signs of resistance as it forms. But when resistance does rear its head, what should you do?

Your Resistance To-Do List
•Double check your assumptions about resistance. Learn to regard resistance as an opportunity to clarify your message, fine-tune your approach, or even course correct your direction. Some of your best ideas can come from people who disagree with you.
•Use resistance as a springboard to dialogue, not as an evil enemy to be clubbed into submission.
•Pinpoint the source. Is the resistance about the "what" or the "how" of your change? Is the resister sad about losing the old (the present) or apprehensive about the meaning of the new (the future)?
•Listen more, talk less. Engage people in conversations about their work. Ask questions that prime the pump for dialogue. What gets in their way? What makes their work fulfilling to them? What concerns do they have? What could make things better for them? At this point you're not at all in the judging mode. You're in the gathering mode. Listen with empathy. Dig. Make it safe for people to express their views.
•Invite honest introspection. Ask open-ended questions like "If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change around here?" or "If your best friend applied for a job here, what would you tell him to expect if he got hired?"
•Make sure your conversations include a good cross section of your target population. Loading up your schedule too heavily with managers and other senior people will virtually guarantee that you'll miss pertinent information from rank-and-file members of the organization.
•Make sure that all "undiscussables" are fair game for honest dialogue. To make the point, introduce a pertinent "undiscussable" into the dialogue yourself.
•Be especially careful not to pull rank. If you meet resistance by alluding to position or authority (yours or your sponsor's), you'll drive the resistance underground where it can do more harm.
•Listen with empathy. You may not agree with the resistance, but at least try to understand it. Help people know that they're being heard and, most importantly, respected.
•Make sure your culture doesn't punish people who disagree with "management." A change-friendly culture explicitly welcomes dissent as a sign of the critical thinking that fuels improvement. (After all, you are challenging the status quo or you wouldn't be championing change.)

Resistance is covert or overt, concealed or transparent. A critical part of a change-friendly environment is getting inevitable resistance out into the open so you can address it. Only when you understand people's concerns can you work to find common ground. Unless and until you make it safe to disagree, you won't have a chance of engaging people's heads, hearts, and hopes.

Rodger Dean Duncan is an expert on leadership development and strategic change management. Since he founded Duncan Worldwide in 1972, his clients have included senior executives at major companies in several industries and cabinet officers in two White House administrations. His new book is Change-Friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance. Follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Tom Bech]

Add New Comment

4 Comments

  • Peter Vajda

    "People have a natural
    tendency to absorb information that reinforces their current paradigms and
    filter out data that contradict--or threaten--their current views or
    situations. Be patient. You'll likely need to explain your change plans over
    and over and over again."

    ME: What's going on here is fear; unconsciously, they are asking you to
    help then through their fear. The usual intellectual, rational, logical
    repeating of responses won’t do it. This is why most managerial and HR change
    efforts fall short…the major reason change efforts fail.

    "One way to prime the
    discussion pump is to answer a series of unasked questions--real questions that
    you anticipate people might want to ask but are afraid they'll come across as
    impertinent or misinformed or just plain stupid. Be sure to engage people in genuine dialogue."

    ME: If you're unable or unwilling to
    do conduct honest, open and direct conversations around resistance and fear,
    then these "surface" efforts to get to the root cause of their fear
    and resistance will fail.

    "How do you deal with
    denial?"

    ME: The root cause of denial is, again, fear. Fear of loss. Loss of
    control, recognition or security – mental, physical, emotional or
    psychological. If you're uncomfortable dealing with fear – either your own or
    others,' these attempts will be seen as fake and phony.

    "… to engage in malicious
    compliance--obeying the order to the absolute letter. What's an example of this
    in the office? How do you deal with it as a manager?"

    ME: Compliance is simply "going along to get along." Compliance does
    not result in sincere engagement, buy-in or commitment. It does not deal with
    the root cause of resistance – fear. It will only result in passive-aggressive
    behavior which is dishonest and deceitful. The fear will rear its ugly head
    again.

    "…Diversions often occur in
    meetings where people flit like nervous flees from one subject to another. Some
    diversions are no doubt deliberate, but many are unconscious. Unless you
    recognize them for what they are and address them squarely, they will stall
    your change into oblivion.:

    ME: Most are unconscious, driven by fear.

    "Double check your
    assumptions about resistance. Learn to regard resistance as an opportunity to
    clarify your message, fine-tune your approach, or even course correct your direction.
    Some of your best ideas can come from people who disagree with you."

    ME: It's not only about you; it’s about them and their unconscious issues.

    "Pinpoint the source. Is the
    resistance about the "what" or the "how" of your change? Is
    the resister sad about losing the old (the present) or apprehensive about the
    meaning of the new (the future)?"

    ME: Hardly. It's about the FEAR.

    "Listen more, talk less.
    Engage people in conversations about their work. Ask questions that prime the
    pump for dialogue. What gets in their way? What makes their work fulfilling to
    them? What concerns do they have? What could make things better for them? At
    this point you're not at all in the judging mode. You're in the gathering mode.
    Listen with empathy. Dig. Make it safe for people to express their views."

    ME: It's not about the work; that's just the surface issue. It's about the
    fear underneath their perception of the work

    "Invite honest introspection. Ask
    open-ended questions like "If you could wave a magic wand, what would you
    change around here?" or "If your best friend applied for a job here,
    what would you tell him to expect if he got hired?"

    ME: Or, "What are you feeling right now? "How is your body reacting to what you perceive
    as threatening?" This is not an intellectual exercise alone.

    "Make sure that all
    "undiscussables" are fair game for honest dialogue. To make the
    point, introduce a pertinent "undiscussable" into the dialogue
    yourself"

    ME: Like emotions and feelings.

    "Listen with empathy. You
    may not agree with the resistance, but at least try to understand it. Help
    people know that they're being heard and, most importantly, respected."

    ME: But you'll dissipate the fear only if you engage it and support others
    to work through it - not just "hear" it.

    " Resistance is covert or
    overt, concealed or transparent. A critical part of a change-friendly
    environment is getting inevitable resistance out into the open so you can
    address it. Only when you understand people's concerns can you work to find
    common ground. Unless and until you make it safe to disagree, you won't have a
    chance of engaging people's heads, hearts, and hopes."

    ME" You make it safe by supporting others to feel safe and secure by
    working with them to own, share, disclose and discuss their feelings and
    emotions with one another. Again, not an intellectual or cognitive exercise
    alone.

    Peter Vajda, Ph.D.

    True North Partnering

  • Peter Vajda

    "People have a natural
    tendency to absorb information that reinforces their current paradigms and
    filter out data that contradict--or threaten--their current views or
    situations. Be patient. You'll likely need to explain your change plans over
    and over and over again."

    ME: What's going on here is fear; unconsciously, they are asking you to
    help then through their fear. The usual intellectual, rational, logical
    repeating of responses won’t do it. This is why most managerial and HR change
    efforts fall short…the major reason change efforts fail.

    "One way to prime the
    discussion pump is to answer a series of unasked questions--real questions that
    you anticipate people might want to ask but are afraid they'll come across as
    impertinent or misinformed or just plain stupid. Be sure to engage people in genuine dialogue."

    ME: If you're unable or unwilling to
    do conduct honest, open and direct conversations around resistance and fear,
    then these "surface" efforts to get to the root cause of their fear
    and resistance will fail.

    "How do you deal with
    denial?"

    ME: The root cause of denial is, again, fear. Fear of loss. Loss of
    control, recognition or security – mental, physical, emotional or
    psychological. If you're uncomfortable dealing with fear – either your own or
    others,' these attempts will be seen as fake and phony.

    "… to engage in malicious
    compliance--obeying the order to the absolute letter. What's an example of this
    in the office? How do you deal with it as a manager?"

    ME: Compliance is simply "going along to get along." Compliance does
    not result in sincere engagement, buy-in or commitment. It does not deal with
    the root cause of resistance – fear. It will only result in passive-aggressive
    behavior which is dishonest and deceitful. The fear will rear its ugly head
    again.

    "…Diversions often occur in
    meetings where people flit like nervous flees from one subject to another. Some
    diversions are no doubt deliberate, but many are unconscious. Unless you
    recognize them for what they are and address them squarely, they will stall
    your change into oblivion.:

    ME: Most are unconscious, driven by fear.

    "Double check your
    assumptions about resistance. Learn to regard resistance as an opportunity to
    clarify your message, fine-tune your approach, or even course correct your direction.
    Some of your best ideas can come from people who disagree with you."

    ME: It's not only about you; it’s about them and their unconscious issues.

    "Pinpoint the source. Is the
    resistance about the "what" or the "how" of your change? Is
    the resister sad about losing the old (the present) or apprehensive about the
    meaning of the new (the future)?"

    ME: Hardly. It's about the FEAR.

    "Listen more, talk less.
    Engage people in conversations about their work. Ask questions that prime the
    pump for dialogue. What gets in their way? What makes their work fulfilling to
    them? What concerns do they have? What could make things better for them? At
    this point you're not at all in the judging mode. You're in the gathering mode.
    Listen with empathy. Dig. Make it safe for people to express their views."

    ME: It's not about the work; that's just the surface issue. It's about the
    fear underneath their perception of the work

    "Invite honest introspection. Ask
    open-ended questions like "If you could wave a magic wand, what would you
    change around here?" or "If your best friend applied for a job here,
    what would you tell him to expect if he got hired?"

    ME: Or, "What are you feeling right now? "How is your body reacting to what you perceive
    as threatening?" This is not an intellectual exercise alone.

    "Make sure that all
    "undiscussables" are fair game for honest dialogue. To make the
    point, introduce a pertinent "undiscussable" into the dialogue
    yourself"

    ME: Like emotions and feelings.

    "Listen with empathy. You
    may not agree with the resistance, but at least try to understand it. Help
    people know that they're being heard and, most importantly, respected."

    ME: But you'll dissipate the fear only if you engage it and support others
    to work through it - not just "hear" it.

    " Resistance is covert or
    overt, concealed or transparent. A critical part of a change-friendly
    environment is getting inevitable resistance out into the open so you can
    address it. Only when you understand people's concerns can you work to find
    common ground. Unless and until you make it safe to disagree, you won't have a
    chance of engaging people's heads, hearts, and hopes."

    ME" You make it safe by supporting others to feel safe and secure by
    working with them to own, share, disclose and discuss their feelings and
    emotions with one another. Again, not an intellectual or cognitive exercise
    alone.

    Peter Vajda, Ph.D.
    Your Guide to a Better You
    True North Partnering
    Truenorthpartnering.com

  • Peter Vajda

    "People have a natural tendency to absorb information that reinforces their current paradigms and filter out data that contradict--or threaten--their current views or situations...You'll likely need to explain your change plans over and over and over again."
    ME:What's going on here is fear; unconsciously, they are asking you to help then through their fear. The usual intellectual,rational, logical repeating of responses won’t do it. This is why most managerial and HR change efforts fall short…the major reason change efforts fail.

    "One way to prime the discussion pump is to answer a series of unasked questions--real questions that you anticipate people might want to ask but are afraid they'll come across as impertinent or misinformed or just plain stupid. Be sure to engage people in genuine dialogue. If you're unable or unwilling to do conduct honest, open and direct conversations around resistance and fear, then these "surface"
    efforts to get to the root cause of their fear and resistance will fail."

    ME: How do you deal with denial? The root cause of denial is, again, fear. Fear
    of loss. Loss of control, recognition or security – mental, physical, emotional
    or psychological. If you're uncomfortable dealing with fear – either your own
    or others,' these attempts will be seen as fake and phony.

    "… to engage in malicious compliance--obeying the order to the absolute letter. What's an example of this in the office? How do you deal with it as a manager? Compliance is simply "going along to get along."
    ME: Compliance does not result in sincere engagement, buy-in or commitment. It does not deal with the root cause of resistance – fear. It will only result in passive-aggressive behavior which is dishonest and deceitful. The fear will rear its ugly head
    again.

    "…Diversions often occur in meetings where people flit like nervous flees from one subject to another. Some diversions are no doubt deliberate, but many are unconscious. Unless you recognize them for what they are and address them squarely, they will stall your change into oblivion.

    ME: Most are unconscious, driven by fear.

    Your Resistance To-Do List

    "Double check your assumptions about resistance. Learn to regard resistance as an
    opportunity to clarify your message, fine-tune your approach, or even course
    correct your direction. Some of your best ideas can come from people who
    disagree with you."

    ME: t's not only about you; it’s about them and their unconscious issues.
    "Pinpoint the source. Is the resistance about the "what" or the "how" of your
    change? Is the resister sad about losing the old (the present) or apprehensive
    about the meaning of the new (the future)?"
    ME: Hardly. It's about the FEAR.

    "Listen more, talk less. Engage people in conversations about their work.
    Ask questions that prime the pump for dialogue. What gets in their way? What
    makes their work fulfilling to them? What concerns do they have? What could
    make things better for them? At this point you're not at all in the judging
    mode. You're in the gathering mode. Listen with empathy. Dig. Make it safe for
    people to express their views."
    ME: Most often, it's not about the work; that's just the surface issue. It's about the fear underneath their perception of the work.

    "Invite honest introspection. Ask open-ended questions like "If you
    could wave a magic wand, what would you change around here?" or "If
    your best friend applied for a job here, what would you tell him to expect if
    he got hired?"
    ME: Or, "What are you feeling right now? "How is your body reacting to what you perceive as threatening?" This is not an intellectual exercise alone.

    "Make sure that all "undiscussables" are fair game for honest
    dialogue. To make the point, introduce a pertinent "undiscussable"
    into the dialogue yourself.• Like emotions and feelings. •Listen with empathy. You may not agree with the resistance, but at least try to understand it. Help people know that they're being heard and, most importantly, respected."
    ME: But you'll dissipate the fear only if you engage it and support others
    to work through it - not just "hear" it.

    "Resistance is covert or overt, concealed or transparent. A critical part of a
    change-friendly environment is getting inevitable resistance out into the open
    so you can address it. Only when you understand people's concerns can you work
    to find common ground. Unless and until you make it safe to disagree, you won't
    have a chance of engaging people's heads, hearts, and hopes."
    ME: You make it safe by supporting others to feel safe and secure by working with them to own, share, disclose and discuss their feelings and emotions with one another. Again, not an intellectual or cognitive exercise alone.
    Peter Vajda, Ph.D.
    www.truenorthpartnerng.com

  • Maja

    What a great article! So true! I'm adding 'malicious compliance' to my glossary now, next to another interesting concept I've heard about recently - 'intelligent disobedience' Thanks for the useful tips on how to drive change without driving yourself mad.