Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dealing With Resistance

If you are a leader attempting to create dramatic contextual change in your organization you will quickly have a new friend for life; a friend who hops up on your shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Hello, I’m your new best mate and my name is RESISTANCE.” As a leader, if you ignore resistance, it will infect and destroy any change attempt.

Within every organization there is a solid and seemingly unified contingent wearing tee shirts that say, “This too shall pass.” Unattended, resistors and their cousins will carry the moment and a compelling vision will not be enough to get the job done. Can you see your resistors? Do you know who they are? Do you attend to them? How?

When I moved into leadership, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, three decades ago, resistors were my biggest surprise. They can come in all sizes and shapes and be anybody. Sometimes, all I needed to do to see a resistor was look in a mirror! A few have been members of my leadership team. Quickly, I realized resistance would always be an important part of my life, like a genetic disease akin to diabetes. It would never go away. I had to learn how to live comfortably with the resistors. It became an issue of how to mute their power and support them in making the personal choice of commitment. WE HAVE A RIGHT TO ASK FOR THAT COMMITMENT! My friend and partner, John Edwards, says it best, “All of us need to be clear about what we draw a salary for. Anyone who draws a salary to work at our organization is expected to work hard to help our organization achieve its vision, and maybe some people need to be reminded of this.” Supporting resistors in making the personal choice of commitment is bloody hard work. Ignoring them or running away from them will destroy any improvement effort. AS A LEADER, DESIGNING A PROCESS TO DEAL AND LIVE COMFORTABLY WITH RESISTORS IS CRITICAL.

This post will detail the process I have evolved over the years to deal with resistance. It is one man’s story. Many of you have created your own stories and are expert at this. What are your successful strategies for dealing with resistance?

To deal with resistors you must understand their source of power. This power normally resides in one of four platforms.
1. Our organization has been down this path before.
2. Our organization may be committed, but the federal, state and regional offices are not.
3. Prove to me that the leadership team supports this.
4. If I go along with you, how long will you or I (us) be around?
These are compelling platforms for two reasons: first, there is truth in what they say and second, they speak for each of us. Resistors have often been the voice of my own doubts! They often have history on their side. They have the data to prove that other attempts to change the organization have passed in the night. They put into words the doubts we all have. Resistance is disbelief, a loss of faith in the sincerity or goodwill of others. What resistors seek is a promise we can never give them. They want us to reassure them that we can provide a safe and successful future. We cannot choose adventure (your shared vision journey) and then promise safety to get people to come with us.

The resistor has two first cousins, the victim and the bystander. They form different kinds of resistance because they run on different fuels. Victims will claim that it is not within their power to make the changes required. They will point to a multitude of reasons for this. These reasons are never “their fault”; someone or something else is always responsible.
“I don’t have enough time.”
“They won’t let us.”
“You overloaded us.”
Bystanders enter the game by withholding commitments. They want proof that this will work. Your shared vision journey is filled with uncertainty. You can never offer the proof a bystander requires.
“Guarantee me that we will be successful.”
“Why should we experiment on ourselves?”
“We are already the best.”
Have you identified the types of resistors in your organization? Try classifying your resistors according to the framework just presented. This data will be helpful as you design strategies to deal with them.

What follows is my design. I have not numbered my strategies because they can occur in any number of sequences. This is not magic and it wasn’t always successful. The evolution of the design allowed me to live comfortably with resistors and their cousins. We need to find a way to evoke faith, responsibility and commitment in ourselves and those around us and at a minimum, keep the resistors, victims, and bystanders from controlling the emotional environment and undermining our efforts. We need a way to be deeply respectful of them and at the same time prevent them from having the undue power they sometimes gather.

Bill’s Design: Dealing With Resistance

• Never argue
Our instinctive response to resistance is to argue. We want to persuade the resistor that this change will be special. Efforts to sell the new age to a resistor by argument always are futile. There is a reason you can’t argue with a resistor. There is some validity to what they say. They put into words doubts we all have. For these reasons we cannot argue or barter with resistors. The more we argue the stronger they become. Resistance is disbelief, a loss of faith in the sincerity or goodwill of others. How can you argue or barter for faith?

• Never coerce
We cannot coerce resistors. We need to believe that faith, responsibility, and commitment is a matter of personal choice. Even though history may be on the side of the resistors and their wounds are real, they can choose to have faith in the face of that experience. This is the invitation we make to them. We need to affirm their version of the history and support them in their doubts. We replace coercion and persuasion with invitation.

• Never allow resistors a public forum
One verbal resistor in a room of fifty can set the tone and carry the day. We really don’t need resistors to join our effort because we already have a critical mass that will do that. We want to contain the influence resistors have over others. Never allow resistors to have a public audience. I planned for this in designing meetings. I never allowed argument at a staff meeting. I would explain that we had only a precious few moments to spend together as a staff during the year and that these needed to be positive moments. Argument simply wastes everyone’s energy and no good will come of it. This was proven at my daughter’s secondary school where she teaches recently. Her principal chastised the staff about rumors. The public argument that followed fractured the school climate like a stone being thrown through a plate glass window. That kind of meeting becomes an infectious disease.

• Be of one voice, one mind
When I first moved into leadership, I was fortunate to be mentored under a wonderful leader. In my first conversation with him he taught me a lesson I will never forget. He explained that my responsibility was to assist him in being a great leader for the organization, even when I didn’t agree with him. Further, he expected me to use my strengths to compensate for his weaknesses. If I would remember that advice my career would flourish. I did and it did! Through him I learned that behind closed doors we could argue and debate strategies and issues until we were blue in the face. But, once we opened those doors our staff would need to see and hear a leadership team that spoke and acted as one mind, one voice. When you are not, you create an environment where resistors flourish. If you are not of one mind, one voice, the resistors will drive a Mack truck through the hole. Resistors on leadership teams are especially dangerous. In my career worked with twenty-five different leadership team members. I am proud that fifteen of them moved to the next level of their careers while working with me. Three retired happily. Four were resistors. How do you handle resistors on your leadership team? We cannot allow those closest to us to be Mack trucks because they can destroy our efforts instantly. Like other staff members we must support them in making the personal choice of commitment. And remember, WE HAVE A RIGHT TO ASK FOR THAT COMMITMENT. I don’t believe there are any throwaway people. I continually invited my leadership team resistors to make a commitment. Those commitments were forged as partnerships. WE continually designed agreements of how we would work together. This was a written design. WE continually created the parameters of our responsibilities to one another. These were written parameters. WE continually met to gather and share data related to our agreements. After time, if the data proved they were not willing to commit, I would ask them to leave. In my personal history with leadership resistors; instantly in one case, after four years in another, three years in another, and 2 years in the last, they left. My first CEO removed the first resistor for me by transferring him. Two retired gracefully. The other resigned as I prepared to fire him. Being of one mind, one voice is serious leadership work. Nothing less should be accepted.

• Engage resistors in Facilitative Questioning
Seek to understand your resistors so you know where they fit on the framework I described earlier. Facilitative Questioning is the most powerful tool I have ever learned for doing so. I continually looked for opportunities to engage resistors in Facilitative Questioning episodes allowing me to construct MY version of THEIR truth, their values, beliefs and assumptions. By questioning resistors, I came to understand their history and their passions and could identify the kind of resistor I was dealing with. A good question to start with is: “Help me understand where your behavior is coming from?” This should come after you have shared clear data. Another good question is: “If you were the leader and you saw this behavior in a staff member (or leadership team member) what action would you take?” The key in Facilitative Questioning is to leave the responsibility with the person who should hold it. DO NOT try to fix them up, just help them reflect on their behavior.

• Invite partnerships through stewardship conferences
There are two phases to the conference. First, I ask the resistor what they are going to commit to do to help us on our shared vision journey. Next, I ask what they will need from me to be successful. When we are done I have a clear understanding of how I will need to continue to support each of my resistors and the data we need to generate to know if we are honoring our partnership agreement.

• Gather the data
If a resistor, over time, would not engage in making choices to fulfill our partnership agreement, we would gather and share data, reflect through facilitative questioning with them regarding that data, design new action plans from that reflection, and coach them through the action plan.

• Keep your eye on the vision, not the current reality
If over time, you are unable to mute the power of resistors and they are destroying your shared vision journey, they must be asked to leave. Those are not easy decisions, but the shared vision is your organization’s power. In twenty years I dismissed one employee and then there was that Leadership Team who resigned first. Many people left of their own volition, because of the process just outlined. In some cases my support of the resistor included helping him or her find an appropriate place for their work.

The sum total of working this process to deal with resistance over the years acted as a muffler on my contingent of resistors. And it was always a great joy when a resistor accepted the invitation to commit. A few letters from resistors who committed are among my most treasured possessions in my career.

Finally, I could surmise that I spent so much time with resistors that many of them have become life-long friends!


  1. Hi Bill, I didn't know that you were back, but now I know and I will tell the others. Thank you - very useful!! Love,K

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  5. 在莫非定律中有項笨蛋定律:「一個組織中的笨蛋,恆大於等於三分之二。」......................................................................

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  7. 一時的錯誤不算什麼,錯而不改才是一生中永遠且最大的錯誤............................................................

  8. 宇宙萬物中,沒有比人的存在更值得驚訝的!是怎樣的緣份讓我能在分享你的心情~~............................................................