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  • Nick Smith

Resistance is futile - rethinking 'resistance management'


Resistance management is integral to many change tool kits. That change could be resisted is hardly surprising for a plethora of reasons: even compelling change inevitably involves loss of elements of the prior state; some change may fundamentally disbenefit a proportion of those impacted; leaders may not be trusted; or change may be being executed badly. That those who are leading the change would want to address and lessen such resistance is also hardly surprising: so we have ‘resistance management’ toolkits. Why is this worth even thinking about? I want to suggest a couple of reasons.

The first is that, if we’re not careful, the idea of ‘resistance’ as something to be ‘managed’ can drift into an unhelpful mindset – one in which people are the problem, that those who are resisting change are in and of themselves problematic. Talking therapists / counsellors understand that such a mindset gets in the way of helping their clients embrace change, and surely it’s the same in organisational change. We, as change leaders, will also be more successful in effecting change when we are empathetic and sustain a positive mindset in relation to those impacted by change.

Second, is the risk that ‘resistance management’ can get me off the hook as a change leader. If I’m lazy (and I certainly can be), then badging challenges as ‘resistance’ may mean I focus on the nature of the ‘resistance’ rather than the causes. What if the issue is nothing to do with the specific change, but flows from a real lack of attentional capacity for change, due to anxiety or lack of psychological safety? What if the ‘resistance’ flows from an entirely sensible, rational understanding of the disbenefits of this change and we haven’t acknowledged this in our engagement?[1].

Again, it’s important to acknowledge that a ‘resistance management’ approach doesn’t inevitably lead to these two problems, but it does seem to open the door to them. How can we avoid that? Here’s one overarching principle, and four tips.

The overarching principle is about how we frame what we’re doing. Do we think we’re more about enabling change, or about managing change? The former positions successful change as being fundamentally about those who are impacted by change – and their embracing of that change. Change management, for me however, frames change as something that is deployed, implemented, something that change leaders do. Both perspectives, of course, are needed – working together. But I think we’d do better to emphasise the enabling mindset more often.

Four hints and tips for working with ‘resistance’ from an enabling mindset:

  • First, adopt a Brain-friendly change approach: recognise and address those factors (eg felt psychological safety, exhaustion, stress) that lead to a reduction in attentional capacity and consequently change capacity. This is not trivial, but it’s crucial and neglected.

  • Second, be clear whether you’re addressing symptoms or causes. Where you’re confident that the change is inevitable, and it’s the right change; where you’ve recognised that the change brings very significant present disbenefit for some, but that it underpins (for example) organisational survival; in those circumstances you’re not going to be able to change the underlying causes of the ‘resistance’. You’re going to have to work with the symptoms of the underlying dislike of the change, providing tools to help those impacted work with the change they don’t want[2].

  • Third, remember ‘what if’ is always more effective than ‘you must’. Where the change is ultimately positive, are you inviting people to share and pursue a vision, or are you issuing instructions they must follow. Which would you prefer?

  • Finally, use this change 2x2: one axis is understanding the change that’s wanted, the other is commitment to it. You want people in the top right quadrant – and ‘resistance’ will come from the other quadrants. With whom do you work to enable a shift to the top right quadrant? The counter-intuitive answer is to work with those already in the top right quadrant, as they’ll create a ‘pull’ for their colleagues that will be more effective than you ‘pushing’[3].

So, is 'resistance management' futile as a way forward? Perhaps not, but we think it can be counter-productive if we’re not careful. What have you found?

[1] I’m reminded of the time someone highlighted for me that a fear of being in a hollow metal tube, 30,000 feet from the ground, with controlled explosions within a few metres on either side, fuelled by highly flammable materials, could be viewed as an entirely rational fear. [2] Think Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, not Psychodynamic approaches [3] This 2x2 from Kevin M Thomson, author of the Company Culture Cookbook

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