My clients regularly complain to me about how resistance is a bad thing and constantly gets in the way of their successful organizational change efforts. “Why can’t he (or those people) just accept it and get on board?” While it can be painful at times when you find yourself on the receiving end of someone’s resistance to change, I would offer that resistance can be a GOOD thing.
So what exactly is resistance, and why do so many people have a negative impression of it? According to one dictionary, resistance can be defined simply as a force that opposes or retards motion. When that “motion” is change – the act or process of altering something and replacing it with another – that resistance can present a serious problem for the longer-term success of a change initiative.
Resistance actually presents itself in many ways. People sometimes resist change through passive/aggressive tendencies and quiet forms of conflict avoidance. Others resist change through more explicit behaviors and statements that run contrary to a project’s objectives. And some individuals even resist change through more overt acts of sabotage that can damage the credibility and future of any change effort.
With that said, one of my colleagues used to define resistance as energy that simply isn’t directed in line with the intended changes. That doesn’t make it a bad thing though. In fact, resistance can be quite useful since it serves as a general indicator of something you may have missed or simply overlooked in envisioning your changes. The trick is to listen to “resistors” without turning a deaf ear to find out what they are most concerned about and in doing so determine whether or not their concerns are your concerns too.
According to Maurer (2002), resistance actually occurs at three different levels.
- I don’t get it… – The first level of resistance is a rational response simply based on a lack of understanding. It’s possible that resistors just need more information to understand what the upcoming changes are all about. The good news is that most of the communication tools we have available to us, including email, all-staff meetings, and such, all work quite well to help people gain a better understanding of what’s changing. The bad news is that most resistance occurs at a deeper level, so these common tools have limited effects.
- I don’t like it. – The second level of resistance is not about understanding. Level 2 resistors understand exactly what is happening, which is why they react so negatively to the changes. Level 2 resistance is based on a much more emotional, fear-based fight/flight response. It’s an instinctive reaction to protect oneself when being threatened, so one more company-wide email or PowerPoint presentation to all staff is not likely to help. Level 2 resistors need more direct communication in order to get excited about the changes you have planned. They need to voice their concerns and feel like they are being heard before they will accept anything.
- I don’t trust you! – Surprisingly, Level 3 resistance often has very little to do with the change itself. Rather, it is usually based on a lack of trust between the resistor and the change agent/champion. Since this resistance tends to be an individual reaction based on previous experiences or pre-existing beliefs, it requires a more personalized approach to address it. Creating opportunities for one-on-one dialogue with a Level 3 resistor may be the only way to fully understand what he/she is resisting. If this direct approach doesn’t work though, you’ll want to enlist the help of someone else right away. You might have inadvertently triggered a hot button for the resistor, so rather than do more harm yourself it is often better to remove yourself from the process and let someone else get to the bottom of it.
People need to actively participate in the change process to overcome their questions or fears. This is especially true in the early stages of a change initiative when the changes are just being designed, so don’t just give people a few hours of training at the end of a project and assume that they will accept the changes that you have designed without them. Identify and articulate the differences between the current and future states early on in the change process and share your perceived benefits for the change with anyone who might be impacted. Paint a more complete picture of what the intended results will look like and communicate why the changes are important for your organization’s ongoing success. This helps employees engage directly in the change process and share their thoughts and concerns with you in a more productive manner.
Remember, resistance is not a bad thing per se. Not understanding why someone is being resistant, now that’s a bad thing!