Change resistance is a friend

The conversations about change resistance seems to be reopened regularly. Here is my contribution, practical perspectives to understand and to work with it.

Resistance may feel like swamp soccer.

Change resistance is a friend

  • Resistance has an important psychological function. It guards against things that cause too much fear or anxiety, that would otherwise undermine the ability to function.
  • Resistance prevents stupid things from happening. The more important thing is going to be changed, the more resistance.
  • Resistance buys time to learn and adapt.
  • As a leader, when I encounter resistance, I am able to work with it. No resistance – no work – no progress.

Change resistance is an everyday phenomenon. It is integral to all new; change, learning and doing my work now. You work with it when you wake up in the morning. Some people tend to resist more some less.

Many find resistance frustrating and would like just to get rid of it. That is like wishing for a physical world without friction. I sometimes hear about breaking the resistance by force. To me it sounds amusing – such an attempt would only make the resistance change shape.

The term resistance is easily taken as judgmental or offending. In reality it is a neutral defensive reaction, not targeted against anyone. When it happens in the organizational conversation, it effects different players’ interests and becomes subjectively good or bad.

In organizations you find change resistance especially when you touch personal and important things:

  • The power structures are threatened
  • People’s personal needs are threatened. Good guesses for the specific needs are autonomy, recognition, safety, rest, or connection.
  • There is more work coming. Learning, by the way, is really hard work, which is too often forgotten.

Conscious resistance is easy to work with – it is fair challenging. Be happy when you encounter it! Unconscious resistance is delusive, undermining resolution, draining energy, dizzying, distracting, causing emotions, manifesting in strange actions.

Possible manifestations of (unconscious) resistance:

  • Forgetting the basic task
  • Forgetting the targets
  • Strong feelings of lameness, stagnation, irrelevance or resistance
  • Postponing and delaying
  • Intellectual arguing about theory so that reality is blurred or forgotten
  • Staying away, busying oneself with other things
  • Delegating things away
  • Shunning, being late, staying away, forgetting,
  • Lack of commitment
  • Not keeping contracts
  • Not understanding and not asking – not caring
  • Neglecting or denying the value of the topic
  • Extended talking about irrelevant things

Obviously it is easier to work with the unconscious resistance, when you first recognize it. But how?

Human beings have delicate mechanisms to share mind states with each others (mirror neurons and so on). You can use yourself as an instrument: Whenever you feel strange, wake up and observe carefully!

Leading is working with resistance

Leadership constantly works with resistance, in oneself and others. The forms of resistance change and develop while the work progresses.

The guideline is to return to the principal task. Again and again. Just like meditation… finally leading to flow.

It is best to point out observations how the work is (not) progressing and ask how to continue. You may offer observations like “For the last 10 minutes we have talked about Y, while we agreed to talk about X.” Maybe there is resistance because X is too threatening. May be Y is actually more important. Or that we have not yet spotted the real roadblock Z.

When time is ripe, you may talk about the phenomenon of resistance, and let people themselves find out their own ways to resist. Usually it is wise to use a separate occasion for learning about the resistance phenomenon. Having the word in the organizations vocabulary makes a difference.

Resistance transfers from team to the leader. The leader needs to observe ones own resistance in order to be able to function. Ability to tolerate separation is very necessary for leaders.

Resistance is a very strong and contagious force. It is useful to prepare and have productive antidotes for the situation:

  • Understand your own role, interests and goals. Keep available a note about them for yourself.
  • Understand the principal task. Prepare with many ways to remind about it.
  • Plan the meeting in question.
  • Understand the phenomenon of resistance. Understanding group phenomenon and human interaction is beneficial.
  • Regularly check Your posture, physical balance and breathing.
  • Take a break. During a break talk with an ally or make contact with the most active resister.
  • Take a distance from the group. Mentally, or physically by walking away from the group.
  • Reflect the experience afterwards.
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One Comment on “Change resistance is a friend”

  1. Gerhard Ackermann says:

    Hmmm? What does it mean, that I feel no resistance when I read this article?

    I definitely do not disagree.
    I guess, it was not written to be against something, just to show things as seen by the author.
    It was fun to read and many things to fully agree!
    The principles seem familiar to me from a perspective of my TaiJi background.

    Hope people become convinced also when they start from a different perspective.