Don’t overcome resistance, explore it

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If you are leading any sort of change in your organization, you will encounter resistance.

Many change leaders get frustrated by the roadblocks and speed bumps they encounter, and they attempt to steamroll over anyone who resists their change initiative. In reality, overpowering resistance doesn’t reduce problems, it simply hides them. And hidden problems are like bombs just waiting to explode and destroy all the work that has gone into your change effort.

Instead of attempting to overcome resistance, change experts advocate reframing resistance so that you see it as energy. Rick Maurer, author of “Beyond the Wall of Resistance,” writes “If you think of resistance as energy, you can see that the only way to use it productively is to let it surface.”

Letting it surface

Use personal contact with employees and stakeholders to launch intensive and meaningful conversations that are specifically designed to draw out resistance.

In his book, Maurer recaps a simple yet effective technique for bringing resistance to the surface called Glad, Mad, Add. To try this technique, present a straw man proposal for a change and then ask others to identify what makes them glad, what makes them mad, and what they would add. Be careful not to defend your proposal, but rather delve into people’s positive and negative energy and work together to come up with solutions.

Another powerful technique for bringing resistance out involves inviting people to channel their inner skeptics. My colleagues and I recently used this technique when facilitating management training sessions around a new compensation system that our client was implementing.

In these workshops, my colleagues and I stopped delivering content about 30 minutes into the session and asked what questions people had. Usually we got one or two mild questions.

We then asked people to share what rumors and concerns they were hearing. Managers started to open up and discuss the harder aspects of the change. Finally we asked managers to “channel their inner skeptics” and ask everything they knew their most cynical employees would ask.

In some cases the managers would say, “Really … are you sure?” Often one would test the waters and when we listened, acknowledged, and openly discussed the concern, the floodgates would open and the questions would flow.

Crafting a response

Maurer reminds leaders to remember that people resist change for good reasons. He identifies three levels of resistance:

  • Level 1: “I don’t understand it.”
  • Level 2: “I don’t like it.”
  • Level 3: “I don’t like you.”

Level 1 resistance involves information: facts, figures, and ideas. It is the world of thinking and rational action, presentations, diagrams, and logical arguments. Level 1 resistance may come from a lack of information, disagreement with data, or confusion over what it means. Many leaders make the mistake of treating all resistance as if it were Level 1. They hold more meetings and make more PowerPoint presentations when, in fact, piling on the rational arguments won’t address Levels 2 and 3.

Converting Level 2 resistance into support requires connecting with people on a human, emotional level. It means acknowledging and empathizing with loss and supporting people so they can overcome fears.

Level 3 resistance can only be resolved when you prove you have people’s best interest at heart by demonstrating genuine concern and keeping your commitments.

In summary, this main point is counterintuitive but essential: Our natural tendency to overcome resistance forces concerns underground. Once suppressed, resistance grows stronger and becomes harder to resolve.

It is important for change leaders and communicators to welcome, acknowledge and explore resistance in order for it to dissipate. When you find out what is not working, what concerns people have, where the problems may be and when you respect and appreciate what people have to say, you’ll find that you are far more likely to generate commitment and solutions.

Mack is a Woodland Park-based consultant, speaker and author who advises leaders on how to mobilize people in order to maximize results. She can be reached at