How to Change Relationships

Sometimes I marvel at how little I let what I know interfere with what I want to achieve.  There are two small areas where the gap is most pronounced: relationships and politics.  For instance, I know that you can’t convince people to do what they don’t want to do, no matter how ‘right’ you are; but I have spent over forty years trying to convince my wife of certain obvious truths about her nature and mine with absolutely no noticeable effect—and no let up in my efforts.  If only the liberal world would put me in charge of persuading coal miners that their interests really rest in voting for progressive Democrats, I’m sure that my much ballyhooed run would continue unabated.

I spent my entire adult life laboring in the change business.  I worked with individuals, couples, families, organizations, and communities.  Not always, but often, I helped them succeed. Emboldened by my success, I gathered students and taught them about the mysteries of change, then garnished my hubris by writing books and articles on the subject.  That did not in the slightest alter my approach to political conversation: announcing the right approach, developing convincing arguments to prove I was right, and trying to pound opponents into submission.

At the ripe old age of (almost) seventy-five, I would like to offer a mea culpa and try to articulate some of the lessons I learned as a therapist.  Normally, I hate when psychotherapists grossly oversimplify the challenges of political change, but like the fool who goes where angels fear to tread, I’m going to try to defy the odds. Hence, Seven Principles to improve your chances of changing others.  If you follow them faithfully, you may well succeed.

(In the following, I will focus on changing individuals and trust my readers to apply the principles to families, organizations, and politics.)

Principle one: Meet people where they are.  Begin an encounter by understanding how the other person thinks and feels.  If people don’t feel understood—in a respectful way—they will close off any attempt you have to share new, no less uncomfortable information and ideas.  If they do feel understood, the sharing of ideas can begin.

By way of example, the only two people who really met working class White constituents where they were during the recent presidential campaign were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  They met anger with anger.  Candidates and constituents were hurt and furious at what they felt—not just thought—were the snobby, dismissive, and corrupt people who were running the country.  Because of this initial meeting of minds, Sanders and Trump gained credibility and had room to articulate their visions.

Principle two: Do not repeat the same old, failed solution.  We all do this.  When we are unsuccessful in solving a problem, we try again in pretty much the same way.  We may try a slightly new angle, use new words, but the “new” approaches are variations on the same damn theme we began with.  The people we’re trying to “help” or to change know what we’re doing.  By the fourth or fifth time, they have developed powerful defenses against any brilliant new variations we might try.  We are closed out.

At that point, the solution becomes the problem.  You say “here’s a better way to look at things” and they hear “you’re a dope” or “you’re bad” or “I want to control you.”  They don’t hear the actual words you say.  They hear the subtext—what they take to be your real intentions.  Now your ability to change them activates strong opposition—what we experience as closed minds.

Ask yourself: is your solution working.  If your honest answer is no, then get off that train.  Even when you feel yourself tempted to try another variation on a theme, like an addict yearning for a fix, don’t do it.  That leads to the next, radical principle.

Principle three: Give up.  Stop trying to change the other.  Once you have entered a control struggle of the sort that usually emerges when one person tries to change another, the only way out is to give up—really give up.  This will confuse your “opponent,” make him suspicious.  He will respond as if you had continued your normal argument, which generally brings you back into the fray.  Don’t take the bait.

Say the truth aloud: it’s clear that I can’t convince you.  You will have to say this a few times.  Then: “May I try to say what I think you believe?  Just to see if I understand you?”  If the answer is yes, then you articulate the other’s point of view and—here’s the key—ask the person to elaborate, so that you really understand, and so the other person feels in control of herself.  After his first tentative beginning, literally say “Say more.”  “I’m not sure I understand.”  “What do you mean by…”  Learning more and ending the control struggle is essential.

Inevitably, you will find inconsistencies and confusion in the other person’s perspective.  Have the good grace not to point them out.  Just ask about them.  Sincerely ask how he works out his confusion, because, lord knows, you have your own.  If he does explain, you know that you have met him at his home base and a real conversation can begin.

Principle four:  Identify the other person’s own efforts to change.  Every one of us tries to change all of the time.  Smokers swear off cigarettes almost every day.  Husbands and wives promise themselves to be kinder, more attentive, or more patient and try for a while—until they fail.  It is a truth of nature that all beings must adapt to changes in their environment—often in the service of staying the same.  Even though these change efforts are frequently unsuccessful, they do represent genuine purpose.  They do represent an internal imperative, every bit as much as a response to outside pressure.

Trying to change a person who hasn’t agreed to it is like trying to push over a sumo wrestler who set in his stance.  When people lack an expected stimulus, something new must replace it.  Joining the new thought or action in a person’s repertoire gives it greater weight.  Now you are encouraging change.

Principle five: Support the other person’s change efforts.  Once you have learned to identify a persons own, authentic efforts to change, support them. Say things like: I see; that’s great; may I elaborate your point.  Here’s an example:  some people almost always says no to suggestions but rarely (not never) offer alternatives.  We think of them as oppositional.   Suppose that person happens to say “Let’s go to the movies” or “Let’s talk.”  Such initiatives are out of character in the relationship.  Your job is to say yes.  Not “yes but”.  There should be no attempt to “improve” the proposal.

Just support what is new and see where it goes.  This is partly a matter of letting go, not being in charge each moment.  It may not improve your relationship right away but it will get you out of the rut, out of your ritual fights.  It will be different. Now, you are on the way to genuine change.

Principle six: Build on the change.  Once you are on your way, you need to be alert: don’t return to old behavior; carefully observe differences in the other—and in yourself; continue to support both.  Each new behavior is likely to give rise to yet another.  The reactive person who awakens to initiating, for example, might become bolder, more outgoing.  The person who is seemingly addicted to controlling the action, might grow more vulnerable.  In each case, it is up to you to recognize and embrace these changes.

Principle seven: Change yourself.  Here’s the irony: the only way to really change others is to change yourself.  As new behaviors multiply, and as you keep pace by changing yourself in response, you will find that a very new relationship has emerged.  Still not perfect but at least free from the struggle that had limited your ability to come together. Your are still the same people but with other parts of yourself in the foreground; and that transforms the relationship.  As the Vietnamese people like to say, “Same, same, but different,” and it’s the difference that counts.

Managing Resistance

NOTE: I published this paper about 20 years ago for a now defunct journal in the field of organization development, but I do think it remains relevant and maybe even fresh.  I hope you enjoy it.


Change and resistance go together, hand in glove. Each is natural, pervasive, and universal. Resistance is neither avoidable nor bad. It is a fact of personal and organizational life. As such, it must be managed, not avoided.

Resistance is feedback and feedback is information. Poorly managed resistance, like poorly managed information about people, productivity and markets, can be costly.

Well- managed resistance permits you to execute projects and implement change efforts with a minimum of difficulty.  We have all heard the old ‘saw’: “If only my employees would follow my instructions, management wouldn’t be so difficult.” Of course, developing effective partnerships with employees is the work of management. So it is with feedback. Managing the feedback contained in resistance is critical to effective work partnerships.

Like all living systems, organizations thrive when they balance the need for stability and change. To manage it effectively, resistance must be understood as a system’s effort to regain the equilibrium that has been disrupted by change. From this perspective, resistance is feedback about those disruptions and the troubles they create for people. If you look carefully enough, you’ll see that the feedback derived from resistance points out how the relationships required to implement change are poorly aligned with each other, and with the goals of your change project. Managing resistance means using the information it provides to realign relationships in the service of achieving goals. The purpose of this paper is to teach leaders and managers how to understand, recognize, diffuse, and manage resistance through the formation of partnerships working towards common goals.

The Many Faces of Resistant Relationships

Sooner or later, no matter how carefully you plan, threats to established ways of thinking and behaving, or to the structures and groups to which people belong, call forth resistance and obstruct the straight paths of progress.

Resistance wears many faces. They include outright refusal, denial, skepticism, lethargy, incompetence, pessimism, and helplessness.  Sometime resistance is direct and intentional, as when a worker says, “I won’t do it that way because….,” and provides a cogent reason for the refusal. Sometimes it is direct and unconscious, as when workers oppose a change even though they are unsure of their own motives. Resistance can be indirect and conscious. This is true about manipulation and back room lobbying. Finally, resistance may be both indirect and unconscious. Here I’m thinking about the genuine lethargy, incompetence, and pessimism that overtake some of us when we don’t believe in what we’re doing but can’t explain why.

Resistance as Feedback

Let’s examine some of the faces of resistance to see how they provide feedback about the alignment of working relationships.

  1. Denial

Denial may be the most common and the most frustrating form of resistance. Presented with the need to change, colleagues and employees say, in effect, there is no problem, or there is no problem serious enough to get exercised about. Worse, still, they mock, as inexperienced, reactive, unskilled, or moved by hidden motive, those who push for change.

It is hard to read the meaning of denial. People deny problems when they actually don’t see them and when they do but are afraid to tackle problems. People deny problems posed by others for many reasons. These include: competitive feelings, discomfort with the authority of others, and loyalty to a third party who doesn’t want the problem-poser to succeed. Denial tends to be a passive form of resistance, whose precise meaning often remains hidden from both sides.

When denial is met with denial, when, for instance, a manager claims that it is wrong or stupid for an employee to deny the need for change, this tends to amplify the problem, setting managers and employees or colleagues against each other in a struggle over phantoms. By the time this kind of struggle transpires a few times, it begins to take on a chronic quality in which virtually any proposal for change meets resistance.

  1. Lack of Motivation

If not denial, then a lack of motivation is the most common form of resistance. Instead of directly opposing change, people don’t work hard on its behalf. The subsequent failure of the project confirms their belief that the program never should have been started in the first place.

Why, managers ask, do people lack motivation? Do they not see the value in successfully completing a project? Perhaps they feel underpaid or undervalued. Perhaps there is no career path that rewards hard work. Do they not like or trust their managers? There are, in fact, innumerable reasons why workers are not motivated. When many lack motivation, not just one individual, however, it is unreasonable to characterize them as lazy, stupid or obstinate.

The problematic relationship highlighted by an unmotivated work force may not be with a particular manager or colleague. Rather, the problem may be with upper management or with unexamined company policy. The problem may be caused by a union. Often enough, workers, wanting to respond to challenges or to improve their lot, are discouraged by unions-or placed in a dispiriting double bind by the conflicting demands and values of management and unions. The main point, then, is that comprehending the meaning presented by unmotivated people may be difficult to come by, but nonetheless understanding it is the starting point for infusing motivation back into individual colleagues or whole work forces.

  1. Incompetence

Incompetence comes from and creates similar troublesome patterns. When people fear or resist change, they often do so indirectly and largely unconsciously by not working up to even their own standards. Incompetence may be intentional-an indirect form of anger and opposition. More often, it derives from anxiety about the nature of work: will it lead in dangerous directions like pay cuts and lay offs? Will I be seen as incompetent if I try something new? This kind of anxiety interferes with one’s capacity to learn and to operate smoothly. Perfectly intelligent people, for example, freeze, when presented with unfamiliar tasks and new learning assignments.

  1. Skepticism

People are often, reasonably, skeptical about the value or direction of change projects-could lay offs, for instance, be in the wind? – and about the ability of both leaders and colleagues to bring them off. Then, too, managers are often skeptical about employee reservations, assuming petty self-interest, ignorance, or fear of trying something new. Sometimes managers are skeptical about projects, don’t confront their superiors, and project their own skepticism onto the team they manage. That is, they deny their own skepticism but see it in others. Often skepticism concerns the attitude or the inadequate resources that the larger organization brings to a change process but is directed at the nearest representative of the organization-their manager or their close colleagues.

The point I am making is that skepticism is no single, simple thing and certainly not a quality that exists only within employees who resist. It is generally embedded in organizational relationships. Take, for example, a history of union-management conflict and mistrust, or the reaction to the too-frequent introduction of the latest and greatest management ideas.

A habit of skepticism may build up between individuals and between managers and their teams. Team skepticism breeds skepticism in managers and their ability to get the job done; managerial skepticism about the skills and attitudes of employees almost invariably brings out the worst in them, thus producing a self-fulfilling prophesy. After a while, these attitudes may grow habitual. A rigid reciprocity develops. Skepticism in one immediately brings out skepticism in the other.

Skepticism often begins a familiar, escalating sequence of behaviors between colleagues and between managers and employees. Here’s how it goes. Employee skepticism is met with explanation and encouragement. This exchange may take place several times, with growing discouragement and disbelief. With time, management explanation yields to argument, then diatribes and, eventually, to threats-generally in response to increasingly indirect forms of employee opposition. Alternatively, the escalating sequence emerges into open conflict.

  1. Questioning the competence, credentials, skills or motivation of the change leaders

This is a particular and common form of skepticism, directed at leaders. Those who resist say, for example, that their leader is “wet behind the ears,” that she has never run a company this big, this complex, this technical. Consultants leading change projects are dismissed for their ignorance of a particular business, for their lack of commitment, and for their greed. They are carpetbaggers who don’t care.

In fact, most of these challenges have at least a partial basis in truth; and, within themselves, most managers and consultants share these same anxieties. If they are too nervous and ashamed to admit their own fears and limitations, these managers may respond defensively or angrily. It is not uncommon, for example, to punish or banish vocal challengers: In the name of alleged maturity, managers may simply dismiss the challenge, all the while guarding their uncomfortable secret agreement.

The troubled relationship that builds around this form of resistance tends to go underground and to be expressed indirectly. Challenge and response may begin openly on both sides, but employees fear retribution and managers fear discovery. As a result, effective collaboration built on candid conversation disappears.

  1. Pessimism

Pessimism may represent an ingrained and extreme form of skepticism. It is directed towards at least three targets: self, projects, and organizations. The upshot of each is a depressed attitude and decreased productivity.

To counteract pessimism, managers frequently find themselves explaining the importance of a project until they are blue in the face. Then they might try reassurance and motivational speeches. When these tactics fail to motivate employees – and when the manager’s own deadlines are threatened -they may try to bully. If they have the power, they may fire whomever cannot get with the program. In general, “complementary” relationships – those that polarize the way two parties respond to each other – tend to build up around pessimism.

To state the obvious, collective employee pessimism is neither characteralogical nor biochemical in its origin. It grows up around organizational failures, frequent worker layoffs, stagnant wages, constant criticism, or management pessimism-that is, in response to legitimate problems. By treating the symptoms- some people’s pessimism-instead of problems in the broader system, we help to create a frustrating and futile battle with no winners.

  1. Impatience with the change process

As change proceeds, it is often undermined by people’s impatience. They say that a project has taken too long or it should have worked already; and the absence of rapid success is said to indicate that the change is not a good one. Then the impatient people fight the change.

This is one side of the problem. Often those driving change do not provide clear timelines, perhaps because they cannot. Spurred by unrealistic hopes of their own or pressure from superiors, they pressure co-workers and employees, who, at first, believe in the schedule, then grow impatient. Change leaders may, themselves, grow impatient with the pace of change and fear that projects will not come to fruition; but, for fear of disheartening others, they keep their impatience to themselves. Then, when others complain, they may continue to say nothing. What could be a mutual expression of anxious impatience, instead, becomes a struggle between colleagues or, more frequently, between managers and employees.

This kind of struggle also grows chronic. With each new project, employees tend to express their impatience quicker. Managers reassure less and are quicker to express their frustration with their impatient workers. It is this chronicity that demonstrates so dramatically how resistance is a relationship problem.

Causes of Resistance

In the previous section, we learned to see resistance as feedback on misfiring relationships. This section will describe some of the causes of resistance. Understanding the cause is essential to building strategies to respond effectively, that is to repair the relationships that show themselves as resistance.

  1. Preserving what is presently valued

Resistance frequently represents an effort to preserve those values, traditions, techniques, and organizational structures that those who resist deem valuable and preferable to the new ideas, methods, and programs that are being introduced. Without addressing these potential losses, resistance is likely to persist. Respect for what is being lost or preservation of some aspects of a stable environment while changing others, tends to mollify this kind of resistance. If, for example, there were a way to introduce a new work method while preserving certain traditional ways of approaching the work situation, one might reduce resistance.

  1. Feeling out of control

In their natural state, systems maintain an equilibrium between change and stability. To survive, they adapt to changes in their internal and external environments. For example, organizations adapt to new personnel and new technologies, to changing market conditions, government regulations, and labor supply. Even as they change, however, systems must retain their essential character. In this effort, resistance is stability’s trusted lieutenant.

Periods of stability and change oscillate throughout the life of organizations. At times, the capacity for change will have to overcome the lethargy and opposition that builds during stable times. The adaptability represented by an initial change, however, can be followed by a period that seems out of control. When feeling out of control, people dig in their heels and resist change. At such times, organizations must try to slow the change process so people will feel secure enough to adapt. Too rapid change can distort an organization’s normal ways of doing business and push it outside its core competencies. Well-paced change provides people the opportunity to perform well, and this diffuses resistance.

  1. Threats to dignity, respect, and autonomy

At times, resistance represents an effort to maintain the dignity and autonomy of those who resist. People, for example, often experience the demand to change as a statement that they are not good enough as they are, and resist being judged, misunderstood and pushed around. People have ideas of their own when it comes to improving organizations and implementing projects. Sometimes they experience the introduction of other people’s ideas as an imposition, and experience the imposition as disrespectful or coercive. Often people feel they are doing the best they can “under the circumstances,” that their capacity to improve has been constrained, and believe that the circumstances (the organizational structure; managerial attitudes or lack of skill; the compensation system), not them, should be changed. And, often enough, those who resist change are at least partially correct.

Current management theory emphasizes empowering workers, spread- ing decision-making, and gaining “buy in” for projects before acting on them. All of these are excellent strategies to head off resistance before it gets started. But resistance often grows even with the best initial planning. When it does, it is important to return to these basic themes of dignity, respect, and autonomy, asking how people feel these vital aspects of their identify have been violated.

  1. Genuine misunderstandings

Misunderstandings often stimulate what looks like resistance, and failures to correct misunderstandings compound the problem. A manager, for instance, proposes a particular approach to product development. Believing they are following the managers instructions, his design team proceeds in a somewhat different manner. Observing this, the manager can interpret the divergence in many ways: as a misunderstanding, as non compliance, as defiance, as ineptitude. If he proceeds on any but the first, he will compound the difficulty. If, for instance, he assumes non compliance and berates the team, he is likely to encourage a control struggle. If he treats the misunderstanding as defiance, he might fire or relocate team members, building resentment that will later show itself as resistance. If he treats the misunderstanding as ineptitude and lowers his expectations for the team, he may create a self-fulfilling prophesy and contribute to the team’s poor performance.

In each of the last three instances, a poor reading of the initial misunderstanding aggravated the problem and led to a new type of resistance. This is bad enough, but often the problem won’t stop there. Poor management of control struggles, resentment, or temporarily poor performance can harden resistance. In this case, I hope its clear that resistance is not an accurate description of what is happening. A dysfunctional relationship has emerged between manager and employees. With each step, the initial problem recedes further from view, the problem worsens, and chances of resolving the misunderstanding grow more distant.

  1. Genuine conflict of interest

People resist change when they disagree with its direction or when they feel endangered by it. The problem may be as simple as a difference of opinion about a technique used at work. But the conflict may be more dramatic. People are often asked to participate in projects, for instance, that may threaten their jobs, in the worst case, or the roles that have made them feel useful. They may be asked to take on jobs whose risk seems well beyond the pay and recognition it yields. Even such apparently simple and advantageous changes as learning a new technology may threaten the workers who fear where this may lead or who, for family reasons, prefer a stable work life to new opportunities. In other words, many changes present at least an apparent conflict of interest between managers and their employees. Similarly, projects may promote the ambitions of one colleague and do little for another. When the first pushes, even slightly, the other may balk. If the different degree of investment is not acknowledged, balking may turn into opposition, and a vicious circle of pushing and resistance may develop.

There are many conflicts that are usually dormant but are hard to avoid and sometimes lead to powerful resistance. I am thinking, for example, of value conflicts between individuals and between individuals and organizations. Equally common, are the conflicting demands of work and family, work and religious observance, work and community.

  1. Struggles over power and control

From yet another perspective, resistance can be described simply as a control struggle between those who want to change and those who don’t, or between those who want to change others and the others who don’t wish to be changed. What sustains resistance is pushing from the change agent after resistance has shown itself. The more one pushes, the more the other resists. This creates a vicious circle.

When change agents consistently push their point of view, it brings out a one-sided response in those who resist. In general, most people who resist change do so ambivalently. In other words, they see both reasons for change and reasons not to change. They experience the ambivalence as an internal debate. When a person external to this debate, powerfully and relentlessly, takes up one side of the argument, it has a preemptive impact: the person who has been pushed can let go of one side of the debate-it already has a champion-and argue more vociferously for the side that resists change. This is perhaps the central dynamic of what might be called chronic resistance, a pattern of resistance that becomes a general response to the introduction of virtually all change projects, during which people’s own recognition of problems and their own motivation to change is nullified and lies dormant.

It goes without saying, that people struggling for control do not perceive themselves as sharing a common goal. From this perspective, intervention seeks to alleviate, resolve, or divert the control struggle by trying to clarify shared goals or to develop them anew.

  1. Treating opposition as non compliance

Resistance builds when those driving change fail to see it as a two-way street, an interaction. More often than not, managers treat resistance as noncompliance. In this formulation, resistance resides inside those who oppose change, and those who insist on change take little or no responsibility for the problem. They fail to reflect on how they have prepared others for change, how sensible or threatening the change is, how autocratic or inarticulate they might have been, or how pessimistic they might have been under the surface. If only the resistors would get a better attitude, they believe, all would be well.

When resistance is treated as non compliance, resistors feel demeaned, coerced, or misunderstood. There is a natural, undignified hierarchy built into the idea of non compliance. It says, “I know better than you. I even understand your (resistant) actions better than you do.” Conceived this way, resistance implies there is something wrong with those who resist. In turn, resistors will resist this judgment long after the correctness of the change is explained and even agreed to. Framing resistance as non compliance demeans those who think they oppose change for good reasons. It appears self righteous-especially when the change agent’s frustration with resistance is accompanied by anger and bullying and articulated as blame.

Treating resistance as non compliance leads almost invariably to control struggles. When employees do not believe their job is jeopardized, the struggle may open, showing itself as direct opposition or skepticism. When employees feel threatened, the control struggle will go underground, showing itself only as lethargy, incompetence, or a lack of motivation.

  1. Illegitimate authority

Authority is often assumed, not earned. And it is often thought to be a one-way relationship. Yet mutuality and reciprocal responsiveness are inherent in any successful authority relationship. When this reciprocity breaks down, when those asked to follow do not believe that the person in authority is sufficiently responsive to their needs, their meanings or their dignity, the relationship begins to break down. Then, no matter how clear a leader’s explanation of goals and expectations, people will not follow wholeheartedly. They will resist. Often enough in such cases, their resistance will directly challenge the manager’s credentials or his capacity to lead. But, just as often, if employees are afraid, they will “act out” their resistance in some of the indirect ways I have described.

  1. Problems in the larger organizational context

Often resistance encountered in a particular domain-individual, team, or business unit-can only be explained and managed by intervening in the larger system in which the encounter is located. This is a complex issue to understand, but let me offer two brief illustrations to shed some light on this dilemma.

How conflict among leaders leads to resistance among managers and employees You are a national sales director. You ask your district and regional sales managers to take a firm hand in promoting a new marketing campaign but they seem unable or unwilling to mobilize the representatives from their districts. You patiently explain the importance of the campaign, as do your managers. Still the representatives seem unmotivated. You and your managers grow insistent. Still nothing. After careful inquiry, however, you discover that the Human Resource Department has let it be known that representatives need not accept “bullying” by managers, whose excesses should be reported as harassment. It turns out that the Vice President of Human Resources and the Vice President of Sales don’t agree on management technique. Until they resolve their differences, each manager will be faced with what looks like simple, passive resistance from sales representatives.

How conflict with one’s boss leads to resistance in one’s employees You are a mid-level manager in the claims processing division of an insurance company. Your boss proposes a work redesign project that, by training everyone as generalists, dramatically reduces “handoffs,” for example from a Blue Cross to a Medicare specialist and from there to many others. You don’t agree with this reorganization but have discovered that it is futile to argue with your boss. So you say nothing and, with great ambivalence, begin to implement the work redesign. Your team, having grown comfortable in their specialized roles, doesn’t particularly like the change either and, in addition, they sense your attitude. As a result, they proceed in an extremely lackadaisical manner. You report their behavior to your boss, who pressures you to succeed. You, in turn, pressure your team, which seems increasingly resistant to you. At least you and your boss can agree on that, and that agreement on the team’s resistance is important to your standing in the company. In effect, you agree to the location of the resistance, which might as accurately be located in you or in your relation to your boss-or in the interaction of you, your boss and your team.

Qualities of Resistance

These are only some of the causes of resistance. For anyone charged with leading a real-world change project, they are probably too much to digest all at once. So let me try to simplify my description by naming the three qualities of resistance that seem to stand out from all the rest.

  1. Direct and active vs. indirect and passive

Current management theory encourages direct, challenging, 360 degree feedback. Without it, leaders are said to grow isolated. Ideas and information are lost. Organizations stagnate. The same theory applies to the management of resistance. The meanings of denial, lethargy, incompetence, and helplessness are difficult and time consuming to tease out. The more direct and active the resistance (feedback), the more readily it can be understood and handled-either through instruction or negotiation.

  1. Flexibility vs. rigidity

When first expressed, resistance is generally still flexible; the problem is still generally resolvable through open conversation. However, consistent misreading of resistance and efforts to override it by management often lead to rigidity. The more they insist on a point of view, for instance, the more others resist. The more employees resist, the more managers insist. The longer this kind of interaction persists, the more the relationship grows polarized and the more the differences grow immovable.

The opposite is also true. Were managers to change their own behavior-by acknowledging that they had explained poorly, for example, or that they hadn’t listened well to another’s objections-then resistance would likely diminish or disappear. If employees got together and decided to give their manager, whose job was threatened by their poor performance, a break, his attitude and behavior might change. When polarized, each side blames the other, but the more useful focus of attention is the relationship.

  1. Situational vs. chronic resistance

When resistance emerges because of a particular situation, it is still easy to intervene. But resistance can become chronic. Whenever some managers propose a project or a change, for example-regardless of the content of the change-their employees respond skeptically. This chronicity rarely emerges during first or second encounters but builds, incrementally, over time. Employees come to expect certain (to them) unacceptable instructions and react automatically. Managers have comparable negative expectations and pre-sent their instructions with the expectations in mind. Once this chronic situation emerges, no one can win unless the relationship pattern is identified and changed.

Resistance is out of control when it loses contact with its original cause. It might have arisen through a distrust in leadership but, by the time it is seriously addressed, looks like a difference of opinion around a marketing strategy. It might begin as a series of misunderstandings, grow into a chronic control struggle, and transform itself into a pessimistic, lethargic work force, following the firing of a popular worker. Resistance is out of control in these situations because it is so hard to effectively address the causes. In such cases, it is often necessary to trace the origin of the difficulty before you can break the hold of the resistant relationship.

Responding to Resistance: Developing and Repairing Partnerships

I believe that many of the principles of good management have been implicitly stated in my reconception of resistance and need primarily to be formalized. Here is a practical, five step approach to the management of resistance.


Anticipate resistance

Assume that no matter how well planned, well prepared and articulated the change project, no matter how logical and well-conceived, there will likely be resistance, if not at first, then later. Even successful implementation leads indirectly to resistance. When people change, they get nervous. They reach a point when they are too far from their traditional way of doing business but not yet secure in the new way. At such times, often close to the completion of a project, they sometimes dig in their heals. So don’t be surprised by resistance.

Regularly scan the horizon in the manner of a sailor guarding against an unpredictable sea. Look for the many faces of resistance described above. Name it aloud. Check out with colleagues that your observations are accurate.


Explore the problems for which resistance provides feedback

  • Actively explore the meaning of the resistance. Don’t try to determine the meaning by yourself, in the quiet of your mind. Instead, ask others:
  • Ask those who appear to be resisting what their idea about the problem is. Ask them why the change initiative isn’t working out. Ask what you may be doing to cause the problem. Ask questions about larger organizational goals and trends, like down sizing.
  • Ask those who seem compliant. Particularly ask those who are in between. In any group, there are “bridge” people, those who see both sides of a question. They often provide the most complete information. Later, as allies, they may help reconcile differences of opinion.
  • Ask colleagues who have a different perspective than you do.

As you inquire, keep in mind some of the causes of resistance that were explored above. In that vein, ask:

  • What conflicts of interest does it emerge from?
  • What misunderstandings?
  • What violations of legitimate authority?
  • Which partnerships are misfiring? Those with colleagues? Those with your employees? Your Boss? The organizational culture?
  • Are you drawing the circle of inquiry large enough? Sometimes, for example, the conflicting demands of work and family or work and community create resistance
  • Is the resistance active and direct – what you see is what you get – or passive and disguised, requiring you to explore further?

The better you become at exploring and articulating the reasons for resistance, the less others will persist with passive, indirect forms. The more those in conflict come to a shared idea of the meaning of resistance, the better chance they have to resolve the difficulties. In fact, the very act of mutual inquiry is the first, major step towards building a partnership capable of solving the problems that led to the resistance in the first place.


Join and validate the resistance, thus empowering those who resist

In order to change a system, you must join it. Joining means to share sufficiently the values and culture of another. This makes others feel safe. If you appear safe, you can come close; and it is close we must come in order to influence another person or group.

Respectful inquiry into the meaning of resistance begins to bring us close. People are reassured when we really want to understand their experience. This process is very different than the rhetorical questioning commonly used in the face of resistance. Rhetorical questions make a point. They speak at people, not to or with them. Respectful questions aim to learn. They side-step hierarchy. They say, in effect, we are in this together, both learners. Respect, or what some call “appreciative inquiry,” is a craft that takes time to learn. But, at its core, it can be characterized by simple prompts and questions that do not have hidden agendas. Here are a few:

  • “Say more?”
  • “What do you mean?”
  • “Could you elaborate on that point?”
  • “What would that mean for our common enterprise?”
  • “Is there something I can do to improve the situation?”

Not only do these questions aim to understand those who resist, they also invite resistors to understand you. So often, resistance arises because people simply react to instructions-a holdover from childhood, no doubt. They react because they feel powerless in the face of another person’s, and particularly a boss’s, instructions. They react because the reaction, itself, momentarily at least feels like it equalizes pow-er. In the long run, reacting is ineffectual for everyone. When we invite others to question us, we invite them to take some of the initiate in solving our common problem. In taking initiative, people feel empowered. When empowered, they are much more likely to join in partnership to solve problems.

Joining does not mean jettisoning hierarchy. A manager can and should maintain his or her basic role and the essential purpose behind a change initiative. The purpose of the inquiry is to ask how have we gone wrong; and how can we accomplish our task together.

Validating resistance does not mean affirming its many indirect and passive forms. We don’t mean to encourage lethargy, denial, or incompetence. But we do want to say that beneath the manifest resistance there is important information about how and how not to mobilize people behind a project. By affirming the hidden or deeper meanings, we accomplish two things: we let people feel understood; we encourage them to be direct the next time, so that we can enter productive conversation quicker.

Here’s the paradox: to overcoming resistance, we must join it. In other words, managers must acknowledge that they are part of the resistance-not a distant but an integral part. They must own it: by empathizing with the part played by others; by seeing their own part; by understanding that their role and ours are intertwined, interdependent.


Form a partnership to solve the problem addressed by the resistance

When your efforts to join the resistance are sufficiently authentic, a partnership is formed with those who resist. In Step 3, the partnership turns inward, towards understanding the difficulties within the work teams. This effort to achieve a common understanding of the problem pointed out by resistance is sometimes enough to break the problem’s hold; and the work team can get on with its business of completing the temporarily aborted project. In Step 4, you agree to join together in seeking a solution to those difficulties that don’t fall away with understanding and require new action.


Problem solving

The craft of resolving all conflicts of interest, power, legitimacy, and mistrust is well beyond the scope of this paper, but let me offer a few, brief suggestions. When the problem is misunderstandings: When the problem is misunderstanding, begin simply; go back to basics:

  • clarify the project, its goals and strategies;
  • clarify the misunderstanding,
  • see if a common understanding is easily reached.

If this simple method does not succeed, it may be because feelings are still intense and trust still low. In this case, try the same process with a facilitator present. If this process does not succeed, it is likely that misunderstanding is a cover for deeper problems, like a basic conflict of interest or a mistrust of authority.

When the problem is a conflict of interest:

Genuine conflicts of interest rarely resolve with understanding alone. When, for example, reorganization threatens jobs, many will enter the reorganization process reluctantly. Conflicts of interest must be carefully negotiated-by colleagues or by managers and employees, themselves, if they basically trust each other. Otherwise, seek the help of a professional negotiator or facilitator.

When the problem is a breakdown of the authority relationship:

If negotiations fail to produce compromise solutions, you can assume one of two things: that the mistrust is strong on both sides, such that neither trusts the other to live up to his or her side of the compromise; that the dysfunctional partnership is so chronic, that they cannot even imagine solutions. In this case, you should reorganize the work group, joining different managers and employees. Or, if the work team is so valuable and immovable, engage the services of a very skillful interpersonal facilitator.


In this paper, I have described some of the many faces of resistance and proposed that they are best understood as feedback about the poor alignment of relationships. I have described how reactions like denial, skepticism, and a lack of motivation develop from a number of causes, such as misunderstandings, conflicts of interest, power struggles, and threats to dignity and autonomy, and how these experiences are compounded when change agents and those who resist do not take the time to understand one another.

Finally, I have proposed a five-step approach to resolving the relational difficulties which rest at the core of resistance. It has been my experience, and that of others who have applied this method, that an honest use of these five steps does untie many of the tangled threads that bind up organizational change processes. Surely, these steps, alone, are not the sword that slices the “Gordian Knot.” But, when used with patience and compassion, they can be the lubricant that loosens the knots of resistance and, if they do, they are well worth trying.