Meeting the Challenge of Resistance

HomeChallengesMeeting the Challenge of Resistance

It is natural to try to resist something you are not familiar with. In organizations undergoing change, resistance is to be expected.  What people are resisting isn’t necessarily the change they are experiencing; they might even be welcoming the change. What they are usually resisting is the having to let go of things they have always done or situations they have depended upon, sometimes for years.  Resistance is neither avoidable or bad. It is a fact of organizational life especially during transitions. By showing resistance, employees are struggling with the dismantling of both their individual and collective worlds, or those circumstances and perspectives that have helped them to feel at home while at work. Resistance becomes the “system’s” effort to regain the equilibrium that has been disrupted by the change.

As consultants working in the area of executive transitions, we must allow people time to experience change at their own pace and provide them with support and understanding along the way. Consultants often move too quickly and expect employees to “tough it out.” Then when anger or resentment happens, or staff gets withdrawn and depressed as they mourn the loss of how it was, the consultant takes is as a personal challenge to his or her authority or effectiveness.  Good transition consultants provide useful, clear information about what can be let go of (let’s meet every other week instead of every week) and what can be saved (your style of running staff meetings really provides reassurance), and help employees better understand the value of the change by not getting stuck in the past. Managing the feedback and the communication contained in resistance is critical to creating effective work partnerships with employees.

Resistance takes many forms. In some instances, resistance can provide valuable feedback for consultants. This feedback can be experienced as:

  • Denial
  • Lack of Motivation
  • Incompetence
  • Skepticism
  • Questioning the skills or credentials of the transition leaders
  • Pessimism
  • Impatience

Sometimes the causes of the resistance are very helpful for building the right strategies for responding to employees in ways that can further build partnerships and teams. Causes of resistance can include: preserving what is presently valued; feeling out of control; threats to dignity, respect, and autonomy; struggles over power and control; just to name a few.

Certain qualities of resistance stand out amongst all the rest:

  • Direct and active vs. indirect and passive
  • Flexibility vs. rigidity
  • Situational vs. chronic or systemic

If resistance gets out of control it is usually because it has lost contact with its original cause and points to larger organizational issues that may run deeper than dealing with the current change. For instance, there may be a history of mistrusting management or undermining key functions or positions. In these cases, it is important to trace the origins of the problem in order to get a handle on the resistance you are facing.

Good transition consultants anticipate resistance and are willing to explore the feedback the resistance is providing. By creating partnerships with employees to address what is happening, the consultant gives employees a chance to express their sense of loss or fear and feel validated and understood. By empowering staff to effectively deal with the changes they are experiencing, true problem solving begins and a transition team can be built that works together to reach a “new beginning” in the life of the organization.

Thanks to Barry Dym, PhD and William Bridges, PhD

Written by

I am an independent consultant specializing in organizational change, transition management, Executive Transitions and serving as a nonprofit Interim Executive Director. I believe in building board and staff capacity by providing information and tools for informed choices and decisive action. My areas of work include program planning and design, leadership transitions and onboarding, board development, community organizing, organizational restructuring, and creating earned income strategies.