If we as leaders over focus on quieting the voices of those who resist change, we will only evoke more hard feelings that interfere with progress. Twenty years ago, through the Polarity Management work of Barry Johnson I heard a new perspective. It’s simple and it’s a game changer; “There is wisdom in resistance.“ This started me on a path of developing ways to use the wisdom of the resistors to implement successful change.
Ways for finding wisdom in resistance
Change your reaction to resistance
There is a natural tension when polarities exist. Take breathing for example, we have to inhale and exhale. Though both ends of this dynamic seem opposite, they are interdependent and predictable. There is an upside and a downside to both sides. To survive, we need to maximize the benefits of O2 and CO2 while minimizing the downside of each.
In one organization over focusing on change at the expense of stability negatively impacted results.
Like breathing, a dynamic in organizations and life is the “Change- Stability” polarity. Teaching this technique, I proposed to an executive team of a failing hospital that there was value to having both change and stability. The CEO exclaimed, “ Stability is death, we must always seek change at all costs.” There was resistance to his belief by those who were tired of change for change sake. Employee turnover was high, patient satisfaction was low, there was confusion & fear of the unknown, leading to poor results. The CEO and the team realized that more stability was needed.
Resistors, instead of quieting the voices of those in opposition, hear them out. There is always a reason for the resistance, use the information.
A front line nurse manager on a technology project opposed and was even sabotaging the project. When asked, he revealed that he felt everyone was so focused on the technology that basic clinical care was at risk. He was very passionate and committed to excellence, and a resistor. His insights were right on with national concerns for healthcare workers over focusing on the technology at the expense of patient interaction. Once the technological and care polarity was recognized and used to balance the plan, his resistance was no longer present.
Actions to change reactions to resistance:
- Teach the project team to expect, welcome and use resistance in this game changing way.
- Use the power of 1:1 conversations to uncover the real reasons for resistance.
Seek to understand why people resist change
We have all been resistors at one time or another and There are many reasons why we have these behaviors.
Loss of control
Fear of failure
Fear of uncertainty
Perceived threat to core beliefs
Concerns about implementation
Resistance can be dealt with head on by labeling it as normal. Setting the expectation that all feedback is welcome even if some people can’t express it diplomatically. We want people to be candid and diplomatic when speaking their truth. This is another very important polarity to master as a leader. Pick your battles, and be both candid and diplomatic with your words.
Actions to welcome the voice of resistance
- When possible, plant seeds and give hints of what might be coming, seek input early in the process from key people.
- Help people maintain dignity by honoring those elements of the past that paved the way for the next change.
- Create certainty of process, with clear, simple steps and timetables. Ensure everyone knows the plan need not be perfect, we can course correct long the way.
Empathize with resistors by finding the resistor in you
Everyone has been resistant at some point in our lives. Think about a time when you dug your heals in and resisted.
What was at the heart of your resistance?
Were you ever successful in bringing concerns that actually helped an initiative more forward?
We speak of resistors as non-compliant, negative people, which is not always the case. In one organization, a VP was very negative about leading an organizational change. When discussing the situation with her and identifying the reason for her resistance, it was clear that she was struggling in her job. She felt the change might reveal her shortcomings even more. Strategically, she was reassigned to a different role that lined up with her strengths and she became a very successful leader in the organization.
Actions to empathize with resistance
- Avoid the temptation to craft changes in secret and then announce them all at once.
- Consider all affected parties, ask for ideas and concerns, avoid judgment and listen from the resistor within yourself.
- If a change does pose a significant threat, be honest, transparent, act fast, and fair.
Be a leader who uses the wisdom in resistance
It is no longer about driving resistors underground. There may be time when some people are genuinely out to sabotage changes, however it is dangerous to put everyone in this category. Not all resistors are out to intentionally do harm. Use the information at hand, seek understanding and tap your intuition in working with resistance. Seek the wisdom resistors bring and involve the planning, giving them ownership