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“No way!” – managing resistance to change

If you are a manager or business partner responsible for implementing new systems, policies and practices one of the key challenges you may face is resistance to change and progress.  When you’ve worked hard to design new solutions that will solve business issues, it can be at best frustrating and at worst demoralizing to come up against people who refuse to take on board the new ways.

Resistance can take many forms; it can be overt, such as people not taking actions, or less obvious but you feel it all the same; such as somehow never getting to the change project as it always falls off the bottom of the meeting agenda!

Whether overt or covert, the first thing to do is to recognise when you are facing resistance. It can make you want to back off as we’re being pushed away. The challenge here is not assuming it’s something you have done or not done, and not to back off.

So, how can you handle resistance when you’re facing it?  Here are three tips:

Understand that resistance is natural: It’s a reaction to change disrupting us from our comfort zones. When a threat comes along our instincts are to defend what we are happy with and to resist the effort that doing things differently will require.

Resistance is often the outward sign that there’s some underlying fear or concern. Change often means there is a loss of something: loss of control, security, competence. People don’t like to admit to these deep fears, so they put up the resistance ‘smoke screen’ in the hope it will head the change off at the pass. Once you can shift mindset to realise that resistance to change is inevitable then you can start to look for it.

Lean towards resistance: This is about embracing it, saying “ok, I know someone somewhere is going to resist”.  It’s better to bring it out; let’s hear the concerns and potential challenges to successful implementation. Better to know them and find ways around rather than imposing a theoretically perfect solution that has not been fully tested.

The advantage of leaning towards resistance is that it has the effect of diminishing its strength. If you stop pushing against it then there’s less to resist.

We use an analogy of lowering the water to find out what seabed rocks our change project ‘boat’ is going to encounter as blocks to progress.  When we lower the water, we can see the rocks and then navigate our way better.

‘Name the resistance’: Peter Block (Block P, 2012 Flawless Consulting, Gildan Media) says that first you should give two ‘good faith’ responses to the resistance. For example, if someone is questioning the method you have used to reach your conclusions, you respond in good faith that they have a genuine need to know about the method.  If they question the method a third time, then the trick is to ‘name the resistance’.  This is to non-judgmentally describe the way the person is behaving. In the example you’d say “every time we get close to agreeing to move to action you go back to raising a question on how we’ve reached these conclusions”.  The goal is to draw out what is going on for the person. Naming the behaviours without judging shows them that you’ve noticed they are not happy. You may need to hold the silence and show that you are listening to encourage them to open up. Once you can get through to their real concern then the resistance vanishes; they feel heard and you get valuable information on how to move forward effectively.

In summary, handling resistance is about not shying away when the resistance inevitably arises but instead to saying, ‘where is it?’ and ‘bring it on’. It’s about letting others know you want to hear their concerns and fears so together you can make the change a success.

If you’d like to learn more about how we support leaders to engage people in change and transformation and/or about our workshop Consulting Skills for Business Partners, then contact


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