(With Apologies to the Borg) Resistance Is Not Futile


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As an executive coach, one of my weapons of choice is the contrarian question. At no time do I use that weapon more often than when working with change leaders and how they view organizational resistance. Resistance to change gets to be so powerful that program leaders and others involved in implementing CRM initiatives begin planning to manage resistance well in advance (if they are smart). What few of them do—and more of them should—is embrace resistance and learn from it. Resistance can also be a change leader’s biggest ally.

Resistance actually has a very positive role in change. It is resistance that refines crude ideas, smoothes out plans that were too abrasive to succeed and distills projects to their purest core value. Without resistance, we would find ourselves awash in unworkable, impractical and unfathomable projects. Resistance is the force that insists we take both a closer look and a more open-minded one at our ideas and plans.

I remember working with a bank CEO who had been sponsoring due diligence on a major customer-centricity project. Before the findings had been put on the table, the CEO looked around at his direct reports, stuck his finger in the air and said, “I want 100 percent buy-in on this!” In such a case, one hopes that the recommendations are solid exactly as they go onto the table, because open resistance has effectively been squashed. Nothing will be put in place overtly to test the ideas because the discussion, conflict and associated disagreement has been identified as an act of treason. In such cases, resistance goes underground, gets its voice in hallways and remote branch operations—and becomes personal. The odd reality is that in pushing the resistance underground, the CEO has given it much more power to torpedo the initiative than if it had been used constructively in the room.

Resistance develops discernment

Resistance can be a form of organizational wisdom asserting itself. To be effective in our own response to resistance, we must develop an ability to see resistance as more than fear, doubt and inertia. One example comes from the story of John, the COO of a global financial services company. John was considering a major CRM initiative. When we met for coaching, John compared his situation to that of Odysseus, trying to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis.

The bottom line was that a positive outcome to the project would provide a competitive advantage and do a lot for both morale and profits. John explained that the project would necessarily involve multiple departments that operated as independent fiefdoms. Conservative plans estimated 18 to 24 months of focus that the organization had never demonstrated an ability to hold—and that it would put about $180 million at risk. More disconcerting was the cost of failure. The company had been pretty conservative since 9-11, and putting the organization up against an un-winnable challenge would be more than morale could withstand. “I cannot figure out if I am smart to see this or a wimp for backing away from something this beneficial just because it is hard.”

In this case, wisdom won. John understood that the value of the project only accrued if it was successful—and there was little to argue that it would be, in the current environment. In this case, resistance saved the company about $180 million and a major internal battle.

Telling the difference

But we cannot forget that resistance is often just fear, doubt and inertia. Sarah was a talented marketer, a mid-level market manager with a clear nose for opportunity. Sarah had written a proposal to develop a way to use sell-through data to focus distribution efforts. The potential was clear in her mind, and in coaching conversations, she indicated that if the company did not approve the idea, she would take it out on her own and look for some seed money. The company’s decision not to fund the project was, at first, disappointing. But soon, Sarah began to focus on her idea to start her own company.

At first, it seemed that her planning and preparation was a responsible way to do the groundwork before taking the leap. However, Sarah extended her initial 60-day plan, while she had discussions with branding companies. And she extended it again, as she began to rewrite her business plan. It soon became evident that Sarah was finding a reason to delay her commitment each time it got close. Resistance had put on the suit of careful planning and delayed Sarah a year.

Someone else with Sarah’s idea came to market first. It seems that another marketing executive in a competing company saw the same opportunity that Sarah did and acted. He had left his employment six months before and had funding in less than four months. Chalk one up for resistance.

Barry Goldberg
Entelechy Partners
I. Barry Goldberg is managing director of Entelechy Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas. His practice focuses on senior executives, change leaders and bet-the-business program teams. Goldberg holds a graduate certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University.


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