If there is a corollary to the adage that change is never easy, it’s that with change comes resistance. When asked to make a change, people may not see a need for it, they may resent that it’s being forced on them, and they may worry it will have negative consequences for them. Sensing a loss of control and security, their guard naturally goes up and resistance takes root.
People who are resistant to a change can take on various behaviors and attitudes. Some become critical and aggressively question the change, insisting you prove — often to absurd extremes — that your idea will work. Others become helpless or act confused; they want more handholding and support from leadership than usual. Some go into denial, hoping to wait out the change or simply ignore it. And some go silent, become depressed, or take many sick days. Those who are passive-aggressive might publicly agree to the change but never get around to adopting it.
Tamping down resistance or ignoring it doesn’t make it go away; resistance is self-reinforcing and not addressing it gives it more power. But instead of girding your loins to do battle against the resistance, consider calling on your curiosity. Think of resistance as an opportunity to gain information on an approach that may not be optimal or a perspective that hadn’t occurred to you. By being open to other possibilities, we can change our approach and possibly achieve a better outcome.
In his book Overcoming the Wall of Resistance, Rick Mauer posits that there are three levels of resistance; effectively overcoming resistance first requires identifying which level you are facing. He defines Level 1 Resistance as a disagreement in data or approach where each side sees the situation differently. Most Level 1 Resistance can be overcome by effective communication and involving others.
When you find yourself in a disagreement about the data or the approach, it helps to listen to the others’ perspectives before sharing your own. When the others present their information and you listen carefully, you can do a better job of presenting why your perspective differs and possible gaps in their understanding. You may also learn something that informs your own understanding and brings everyone closer to a mutually acceptable compromise.
Involving others in determining how to implement a solution is a reliable way to gain their support. Sometimes people resist simply because they weren’t involved in decisions that affect their work. Soliciting their ideas can lead to a better solution, a more effective implementation approach, and a smoother transition.
Level 2 Resistance goes beyond disagreements over data and approach and moves into the realm of the personal and emotional. Others may perfectly understand your point of view and even agree with you about the facts, but because your ideas require change on their part — changes they fear will be inconvenient, difficult, or even make them look bad — they dig in their heels. In this case, no amount of logic, data, or clarity of the solution will overcome their resistance because it is emotional. With Level 2 Resistance, the challenge is figuring out what is holding people back from being open to your ideas. Uncovering those obstacles requires more in-depth and empathetic dialogue so individuals can feel heard, valued, and assured that you care about their welfare. Your communication strategy may need to emphasize what’s in it for them personally and professionally.
Level 3 Resistance is deep-seated, longstanding distrust between parties, a classic example being animosity between a labor union and company management. This degree of resistance is uncommon in most organizations’ everyday activities, and overcoming it requires significant investment in time and trust building. Skilled mediators are generally required to help both sides find common ground and abandon dug-in resistance.
Whatever level of resistance you encounter, communication is always key to motivating others to accept new approaches. Your messages will need to include both positive and negative rationales because some people are motivated by the good that can result from the new approach, while others respond more to the fear of negative outcomes if a new approach is not adopted. For those of us who are positively motivated, the idea of bringing up negative consequences sounds overbearing, but that may be what others need to hear to be willing to change.
Also, don’t expect one communication channel to accomplish the job. Busy people may only scan their emails, and not everyone attends large group meetings — or even pays attention during them. Some people may only listen when their direct supervisor talks to them. One leader said she had explained the change so many times and in every possible way until she was exhausted. But that’s what it took for all her people to hear her.
Another tool for dealing with resistance is to employ phrases and questions designed to uncover assumptions and concerns. These “resistance reducers,” as described in Lisa Marshall’s and Lucy Freedman’s book Smart Work, begin with verifying and aligning with another person’s point of view before digging deeper into points of contention. The authors recommend resistance reducers advance through the following phases:
2. Aligning – If I were in your shoes, I would see it that way too.
3. Probing – What specifically concerns you about…?
4. Phrasing – How can we work it out so that your needs and mine can both be met?
5. Asking – What would it take for you to be willing to ….?
For these resistance reducers to work it’s essential to be genuinely interested in the other person’s viewpoint and not try to force them into doing what you want.
In summary, to overcome resistance, stay open and listen with curiosity. Determine the real reason for the resistance and look for win-win solutions. Be willing to accept that you may not have the best idea or approach to the issue. Realize that you may not be able to move everyone to your point of view, but if you can keep the communication civil and moving forward, you may get to a better place. In some cases, “agreeing to disagree” may be the most acceptable outcome.