Leading Organizational Change

Resistance is a natural element of change, which can hinder or terminate movement. Whether the human body or an organization, a system will resist change perceived as threatening.  During organizational transitions, people resist in response to fear of losing control or their jobs. Although they may recognize the need for change, their fear causes them to hold tight to the status quo.

Most people resist change for credible reasons, and much can be done to minimize resistance at the onset of change. The following are common contributing factors to resistance in the workplace, drawn from the work of Rick Maurer (Beyond the Wall of Resistance):

Loss of Control: Too much is done to others, and too little by them.

Unclarity: Lack of information concerning next steps and future actions.

Unexpected Surprises: Decisions are handed down without any preparation.

Chaos: Too much change at once, making it difficult to follow routines and accomplish goals.

Loss of Face: Change often implies the ineffectiveness of past approaches.

Issues of Competence: People fear that they may not be able to perform effectively after the change.

Increased Work Load: Assuming that change demands more time, learning, and meetings.

Past Resentments: An organizational history of broken promises reduces support for change efforts.

Resistance consists of energy, the force of which can be overwhelming. Often, we are inclined to manage this force with force. However, although we may overpower our opponent and win the battle, the war will be lost, because we will have foregone the crucial commitment we desperately needed from the other side.

When enough attention is expended—and there is a genuine willingness to be involved in the transformational process—resistance usually turns to support. As we explore the reasons why others resist us, we can begin to see the “dance” that is going on: they resist, we react, they respond with more resistance. It is only when we become aware of this dynamic that we have the opportunity to choose something other than this dance, which inevitably leads to frustration and poor results.

In the face of resistance, the majority of us unconsciously react with a variety of default behaviors. Unless we intentionally direct ourselves to another path, when stress or tensions surface, we will automatically rely on these behaviors in our interactions with those who resist us.

The following section highlights eight common default behaviors, which not only are ineffective approaches to managing resistance, but often cause resistance to increase:

Power: This implies meeting force with force, and involves the perception that the only way to eliminate resistance is to silence (or fire) those who disagree. This is often done in a subtle manner. For example, a reminder about who’s the boss, or referring to the unpleasant consequences for those in past opposition. It is not, however, always subtle. Using power can involve blatantly lashing out at those who go against desired wishes. When power is exercised as a means to force people to change, it is seldom successful. On the contrary, it tends to make people feel even more resistant.

Manipulation: Manipulation has been a popular means of control throughout the ages. One common means of manipulation in organizations involves the filtering of information until people have agreed to cooperate.

The Force of Reason or Information: This entails using the force of reason—facts, figures, and flowcharts—to convince others. Although it is good to involve people and give them information, using this approach exclusively as a means of intimidating others—thus securing their cooperation—is not an effective strategy, since it is based upon an intention of manipulation, and not on one of cooperation. 

Ignoring Resistance: This approach is common in situations when we believe that no one can seriously question our plans, or when we assume that if we just keep moving ahead, others will eventually follow.

Playing Off Relationships: This refers to using an existing friendship or common experience as a means to get others to cooperate. They cooperate, not because they truly support the endeavor, but because they feel obligated.

Making Deals: If all that we require is someone’s vote then the strategy of deal-making can be successful. Deal-making refers to giving someone something to get something in return. Other situations in which this approach can work are when people do not have a particular preference about the issue at hand, or if there is a low degree of resistance. However, this method is not effective if resistance is high, or when the success of the endeavor is dependent upon the genuine enthusiasm commitment of others.

Killing the Messenger: This strategy entails the elimination (firing) of people who question authority, are the carriers of bad news, or are blatantly resistant.

Giving in Too Soon: Sometimes the opposition can appear so overwhelming or intimidating that we give up without knowing the true level of resistance.

The following approaches are effective strategies for managing resistance during organizational change:

Maintain Focus: When we are in the midst of resistance, it becomes very easy to lose sight of our goal. When resistance is strong, an important part of staying focused is relentless perseverance. It is perseverance that keeps us from giving up when the way becomes too difficult.

Embrace the Resistance: This involves the willingness to drop a defensive position, and look at things through the eyes of the resistor.  

Respect the Resistors: Although there will be times when we don’t like or trust someone, we should always make it our intention to treat him or her in a respectful manner. 

Relax: Since dealing with resistance can be highly stressful, it is important to relax as much as possible. The more we relax, the easier it is for us to embrace resistance.

Embrace the Resistance: As we begin to explore the resistance, we keep our ears open to common interests and fears, since building support comes from combining our intentions with those of the opposing side.  We can do this by asking ourselves, “What’s in it for me?” and “What’s in it for them?”

© 2017 Lauren Mackler - Lauren Mackler is a world-renowned coach, consultant, and bestselling author. Sign up for her free Live Boldly e-newsletter at www.laurenmackler.com. For information about Lauren's Corporate Consulting and Executive Coaching services, send an email to info@laurenmackler.com