The Giant Misunderstanding about Resistance

Focus on Indifference – NOT Resistance!

Resistance is the emotion that occurs when our expectations of ‘the way things are’ are interrupted. Two words are important in this definition:
Emotion: the essence of resistance is that it creates an emotion. That means: not logical, not rational and most of all: not predictable.
Expectation: resistance does not only occur when things change, but when our expectations are interrupted, regardless of whether that makes rational sense.

Resistance is a Blessing

A common misunderstanding about resistance is that it is a phenomenon that gets in the way, something to avoid, something to prevent, etc. The belief that resistance is a bad thing is caused by the fact that the emotion is interpreted as negative and the energy is mostly directed against the change (at least: that is what we think!). What’s more, emotions are infectious.
When an outside event produces negative emotions for an individual in a close relationship, it easily sneaks into the team, the department or even the whole organization. As a result, most of us will try to avoid that emotions get in the way.
Unfortunately, whilst we are putting all our efforts in avoiding and fighting resistance, we don’t realize that we are hypnotized by our own panic and fear.

Let’s face it: resistance is emotion and emotion contains the energy you need in order to move from the current state to the future state. In organizational change you NEED resistance. The point is that you should not avoid the resistance or prevent this energy from being built up. Your challenge will be to channel and redirect the emotional energy in such a way that it helps you achieve the goals of your project. Nothing can ever be changed without the proper amount of energy. So resistance is not the problem but the means to achieve your goals.

Indifference is a Stinking Problem

As I posted before, indifference is the real problem. Indifference can mean two things:
1.) Either it means that the change is so flat that it is not causing any interruption in people’s expectations of ‘the way things are’. There are still plenty of ways for people to deny the message and the so-called ‘burning platform’ is not on fire.
2.) Either it means that you have pushed your new initiative so hard that the resistance went underground (resulting in the ‘Otis Redding Syndrome’ or the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’).

In both cases you’ve got trouble and a lot of work to do. First of all you will need to open a safe gateway to resistance, because if people do not feel safe to resist, they will never feel safe to commit (see red axis on the drawing).Indifference means: no gateway for emotion, no fuel; full stop. Nothing is worse than that. Therefore you need to be very explicit when communicating your change and respectful at the same time. In other words: pushing people out of their comfort zones and providing psychological safety at the same time. That will require you to manage your own emotions and your own expectations in order to keep out of the dead end street of indifference.

The REAL Reason why Reengineering Projects fail

Indifference may lead you to think that your implementation is a piece of cake. As a result, you can expect stinking problems as you handover the initiative to the ownership of the organization (your target stakeholder).
1.) In the case of flat change, people will at best commence the cycle of change: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. You will be urged to double or triple the hand-holding and coaching on-the-job period and your project budget will explode just to safeguard operations.
2.) In the case of duress, when the resistance went underground, the trouble will come as soon as the oppression disappears. This will result in establishing comprehensive control mechanisms, reducing trust to the bottom level. This in turn will undo the return on investment of any reengineering effort or redesign as the latter imply a delegation of control and power to the lower levels of the hierarchy in order to work.

Fear: Your New Friend

To give you an idea of how to redirect energy, the key lies in suspecting yourself in the first place. As a leader of a change initiative you should constantly ask yourself ‘What would I do if I was not afraid?’. Just like Hem and Haw in the famous tale of ‘Who Moved My Cheese’, you will discover that your relationship with fear determines your ability to create an explicit communication style and (at the same time) the psychological safety that is needed so badly in times of change. It is your own maturity, expressed by how well you deal with your own fear, which determines how well you will manage resistance.

In short: resistance is not the problem but the gateway to making the change happen. Indifference is the real problem.