Meeting the Challenge of Resistance- My Approach

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As an Interim Executive Director, I am often faced with suspicious and concerned staff depending on how the departure of the previous executive director or CEO was handled by the board. Even in the best of situations, the loss or departure of the chief executive causes difficulties. 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 resisting is the having to “let go” of things that they have always done or situations that they have depended upon, sometimes for years.  It’s a sense of loss. Resistance is neither avoidable nor 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 the changes at their own pace and provide them with support and understanding along the way. Consultants often err on moving too quickly, expecting employees to “tough it out.” Then when anger or resentment happens, or staff withdraw and under-perform as they mourn the loss of how it was, the consultant takes it as a personal challenge to his or her authority.  Good transition managers and consultants provide good, clear information about what can be let go of (we don’t have to have two check-in meetings each week anymore) and what can be saved (your style of running staff meetings really works), will help employees better understand the value of the change, not get stuck in the past, and begin to think about what lies ahead. Managing the feedback and the communication contained in resistance is critical to creating effective work partnerships with employees. Regular and honest communication about the change is key!

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

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

Sometimes the causes of the resistance are very helpful for building effective 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; fear of job loss or reporting structures, 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. There might have been favoritism, nepotism, or lack of clear operational policies and procedures. In these cases, it would be important to trace the origins of the problem before you can get a handle on the resistance you are facing. Gaining input across all departments would be important to do, before any organization restructure occurs or actions can be taken.

In order to effectively address resistance, a transition manager must not only anticipate resistance, he/she must be willing to explore the feedback the resistance is providing, and form the needed partnerships with employees to address what is happening. Only then will employees feel able to express their sense of loss or fear and feel validated and understood, thus empowering them with the tools to effectively deal with the changes they are experiencing. When this occurs, true problem solving begins and a representative Transition Team can be formed that works toward the new (and hopefully positive) “New Beginning” that come with change.

Thanks to Barry Dym, PhD and William Bridges, PhD for their valuable writing and inspiration on this subject. Beth Schecter is a transition consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. 415.609.3548

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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.