RESISTANCE: why we get it and how to avoid it

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Do you know why you get resistance? No, really. Do you?

Let’s imagine you’re in the 6th grade and your Mom buys you a lunchbox to use instead of your backpack. Nope. Not going to happen. Nothing to do with the lunchbox or your wonderful Mom. You just don’t want to be a dork. So you refuse. When your mom persists or tries a reward to get you to use it, you either lose the lunchbox, leave it on the bus, or keep forgetting it at home.

What happened? You were being told to do something that went against your beliefs and your identity. You weren’t asked first if you’d use a lunchbox, or given a good reason to change – just given it and told to use it. So you resisted.

WHEN DO WE RESIST?

We resist when being told what to do without our agreement, without accounting for our personal (and usually unconscious but historic) risks, without having been part of the decision-making process that concluded with our needing to do something different. Will our daily routines be different? How high is the learning curve? Will we be seen differently by our colleagues? What’s the cost, the risk, to our identity and beliefs?

Leaders get problems fixed. Does that mean they’re the ones to generate the goals and do the planning? What if the best solution is larger than the leader’s vision?

Resistance occurs

  • when a small group of Leaders prepare, plan, set the scope and attempt to implement a change initiative without first getting input and agreement from those who will implement the change;
  • when folks are asked to change habituated, accepted activities without them being a part of the goal-setting, without addressing their unconscious beliefs, needs, ideas, or identity factors, without their buy-in at the start.

They never asked for a lunchbox, picked out the lunchbox, or agreed to use the lunchbox. It’s only natural they’ll resist.

I believe that the folks involved with the initiating problem must spearhead the change effort, with support and guidance from the Leader. I believe the job of a Leader is to enable Followers to discover Their own best excellence and help Them achieve it.

WHO HAS THE KNOWLEDGE BASE?

Indeed, Leaders can’t know the full set of problems that need fixing unless the voices of those who have been part of the problem, and those who will be part of the new solution, are heard and involved from the beginning.

When called by a Leader recently to help him lead his team beyond their resistance, I noticed their change management flow chart had ‘introduce to front-line workers’ (the folks to carry out the new) was Step 6. Why bring them in so late? “They’re not needed until the Leaders begin the planning process. Then we give them a say. We’re always surprised at how little input they offer or how much pushback we get.”

There’s no way a Leader can know the full data set involved without discussions with the front-line workers. After all, the problem has been around for a while and there’s a history of fixes that have been tried – what’s worked, what hasn’t.

Sometimes these folks have ideas for simple fixes that Leaders wouldn’t have considered or recognize problems the Leaders aren’t familiar with. They’re certainly great sounding boards, and help the process moves forward efficiently. By failing to do so, Leaders actually cause their own resistance problems, regardless of the efficacy of the new solution.

Here’s a true story that very simply exemplifies the problems involved and the ramifications of leaders assuming good employees will do as they’re told.

A colleague of mine called to get help with a client. Ed is a noted corporate coach (on the cover of INC. magazine as coach of the year!). His client Susan had hired him to help Lou, a long-standing responsible manager who was failing to perform the new work he was given. Before firing him, she thought Ed could help him get on board with the new changes. Ed had just spent 3 months with him and failed. He called to see if I could do anything different and save the man’s job.

I decided to do a role play with Ed as Lou, to see if Ed could recognize anything different in my approach from the client side. Since I knew I’d be asking questions that he might not have asked, I asked Ed to fabricate responses based on bits of what Lou had said. Here was our role play.

SD: Hi Lou. Thanks for taking my call. I’m a corporate coach and Ed asked me to speak with you in case my style is more comfortable for you.

ED/LOU: That’s fine. What are we doing here? Why are so many people involved without my knowing about it?

SD: You’re right. I didn’t know you weren’t told I was calling, and I’m sorry. I should have checked. I’m trying to help figure out what it is about the tasks you were given that seem so problematic.

ED/LOU: Why is everyone trying to get me to do X? I’m not avoiding the work, just not doing it to Susan’s expectations apparently. But I have no idea what success would look like. And if it’s upsetting her so much, why haven’t I been given what I need to succeed? And why haven’t my ideas been included?

SD: I hear that you were given work without knowing what was expected and had no part in the design of the action plan.

ED/LOU: Right. Susan just came to me and said there were going to be changes, and my new job would entail something new – things I never learned to do. I had no say in the matter, and suddenly I was meant to take on responsibilities I have little skill in, with no offer to have anyone teach me. Not to mention these new tasks still don’t fully solve the problems we’ve had. But I wasn’t asked for input, so how would the leaders know what I know? And how am I supposed to learn? They keep assuming I can just DO this, but I can’t do it well. After years of being really good at my job, why would I want to do something badly, with no training, and with no idea what my learning curve is?

SD: I assume you told Susan all this?

ED/LOU: I told her several times. She kept telling me it was easy, to just start doing it and she didn’t mind if I failed at first. But I mind. I’m a professional and aspire to getting my job done well. Besides, why would I want my colleagues and reports to see me fail? And the work is not helping solve the problems we’ve got. Why wasn’t I brought into the original brainstorming? I know simpler ways to solve our problem more efficiently. And they’re not even getting to the full problem set!

SD: Sounds like it would have made a difference if you’d been brought in at the beginning and given a voice. And it sounds like you’re not being given the respect you deserve as someone who has experienced the problem firsthand.

ED/LOU: Right. The work I do daily involves speaking with customers. Why would the leaders try to resolve a problem without listening to my knowledge? And now I’m being told to do something I don’t think will work, that I’ll fail at, and the company will not benefit from.

SD: Sounds like a failure all around. What happened when Ed coached you?

ED/LOU: He just gave me tasks to do on his own timeline, and never asked what I needed differently to achieve excellence. I’m happy to change, but I need some hands-on guidance. I tried to make everyone happy, but they all seemed to have some unspoken criteria for me and I failed to meet it. Am I really going to get fired because I can’t do what they want me to do when I know there are better ways to fix the problem?

At this point, ED stopped the role play.

“I’m surprised at how much unspoken data I had about Lou that I never used during our sessions. I had assumed my job was to get him to do what Susan wanted, but I hadn’t realized the price everyone was paying for not taking his ideas or needs for buy-in into account. He was certainly excluded from the goal setting and discovery elements of the change management planning. Obviously he never had a say in creating the new tasks, or in how the leaders defined their goals – and he might really have an effective solution that’s not been considered. On top of this, no one is providing real training. No wonder he’s resisting. And we’re not listening.”

This happens daily. Leaders proceed to implement new goals with inadequate buy-in. They also assume they have the knowledge to make decisions from without obtaining the full data set.

HOW TO AVOID RESISTANCE

Without listening to the voices of the folks involved with the problem – those involved in the processes that caused the problem or will be responsible for achieving the new outcomes – there’s no path forward that doesn’t carry resistance.

I suggest there’s no need for anyone to resist if you bring them in at the very start to help us craft our change management path. Here are some questions for Leaders to ask themselves to prepare:

    • What would stop you from seeking out voices from folks who are involved with the problem to be solved? Obviously it’s a bit more complicated when dealing with a multi-level, multi-group problem. But with representatives of each team, and time for groups to meet individually to craft ideas at each of the 13 stages of change/decision making, it’s possible.
    • How will you know when/if you’ve assembled the full set of folks (including front line works, and ‘Joe in Accounting’) who will provide the complete, accurate data set to plan from?
    • What would you need to believe differently to be willing to give up ‘Control’ to give a voice in defining the new activities to those who will be doing them?
        • Note: With new voices, new choices will emerge, often far beyond the ideas and knowledge of the Leaders. Leaders must be willing to let go of their ‘vision’ and trust that the outcome will be reached, albeit differently, with passion and creativity (maybe even better than originally perceived!) and without resistance.
    • What skills do you need to assist you in being a facilitator rather than someone who controls a change management process?
    • What would you need to believe differently to be willing to achieve your goals differently than first conceived?

We get resistance when attempting to push our goals on to others without their buy-in. Facilitating consensus might take a bit more time upfront, but maintains loyalty, promotes creativity and a positive execution, and obtains a more robust outcome with no resistance.

Sharon-Drew Morgen
I'm an original thinker. I wrote the NYT Bestseller Selling with Integrity and 8 other books bridging systemic brain change models with business, for sales, leadership, communications, coaching. I invented Buying Facilitation(R) (Buy Side support), How of Change(tm) (creates neural pathways for habit change), and listening without bias. I coach, train, speak, and consult companies and teams who seek Servant Leader models.

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