A distraught manager approached me one day, wanting to pull her hair out. She explained that every time she attempted working with a new idea or approach or implementing a new system, even though the same might be part of the organisation’s strategy, a group within her department would always dig in their heels and attempt to thwart the process. These employees and supervisors would not only challenge the intended change, but would speak out negatively about it and attempt to muster support against the project, making it virtually impossible for smooth implementation. Not just satisfied being barriers, their behavioural role became that of the protagonist, fighting against the change. This lack of cooperation was not just a hassle, but a hindrance to development and progress.

Resistance in the workplace is automatically seen as negative and destructive – that its source comes from attitudinal and other forms of selfish behaviour. Recent studies, however, suggest a much more sensitive approach to resistance – leaders should be working with instead of against resistance. This does not mean that we, as leaders, need to agree with the source of the resistance or the need to feel obliged to reach consensus. We do, however, need to understand the underlying reasons for the resistance as being valid from the individual or group’s point of view.

Resistance is natural human behaviour. It is our survival instinct coming to the fore. We all resist something that may disrupt our contexts or alter the equilibrium in our comfort zones or habits. A simple redesign of the company’s parking area may irritate us as we always used to park in a familiar shaded spot. We are particularly affected, however, when structures, systems and processes seemingly degrade our status or power and negatively impact on the perceived value that we contribute. There seems to be a burning desire to be valued and noticed and we don’t want anything to impact on that, unless it is accelerating it. So, we resist when we avoid what we don’t want from the environment. This resistance should be seen as positive or at least constructive – it is the ongoing desire for something better or more valuable. It does not necessarily mean that there are attitude problems – it is just the normal process of standing up for oneself.

Understanding the above, the leader should not only view, but deal with resistance differently. H B Karb, “The Change Leader: Using a Gestalt Approach with Work Groups”, suggests four steps for dealing with resistance:

  1. Surface It – there is always emotion behind any form of resistance and this has to be recognised and acknowledged. The existence of this emotion and that people have issues that they are facing should be surfaced and taken seriously. This should be done as soon as possible – you need to know with what you are dealing.
  2. Honour It – this implies that people have the right to have concerns. It is all about respecting others and emphasising that they have the right to resist something that they believe is not in their best interests. It is recognising that there are problems that the intended change is creating for them.
  3. Explore It – the initial presenting problem is not necessarily the full problem. There may be many different layers of perceived issues on top of what is said initially. It is the leader’s responsibility to probe so as to deeply understand how the problem is affecting them.
  4. Review It – this step is to dispel fears and to discover alternatives that make everyone comfortable with the intended change. With a win/win approach, the leader should facilitate the exploration of ideas and possible solutions, their potential impact and the best way ahead so that company and individual needs are met. All should be held accountable for commitments.

Dealing with resistance in the workplace requires good leadership skills and sensitivity and compassion for your employees. Change cannot be forced. Resistance should not be ignored. Resistance should rather be used to focus everyone’s energy on finding better and better system and process solutions to grow the company and the welfare of the employees.

Free To Grow offers a training module on dealing with resistance for leaders and change champions.

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