Resistance is a source of energy that can be harnessed.

Navigating through an important project or busy calendar, each of us meets square on with roadblocks, hurdles and naysayers. We face resistance to change in our daily lives, whether at home or in the workplace, as a leader or as a follower. So why does change seem like such a daunting challenge, rather than an opportunity on which to capitalize?

Change itself is a normal, natural and necessary part of existence. Organizations need to continuously adapt in order to compete, survive and prosper in the global economy. Change brings growth, renewal, learning, excitement and reward. The birth of our first child marked one of the biggest changes in our lives, and having children has also brought the greatest joys. So, what is our paradigm? Is it simply that change is good, and resistance to it is bad? When we hear the words “resistance to change,” we generally think about that as being a problem. To a large degree, society has a negative connotation and mindset about resistance to change.

At the heart of our emotional response to the idea of resistance to change is the thought: “just make it go away.” Much of the academic and business literature about change management talks about “overcoming” resistance, seeing it as a force that needs to be reduced, counteracted or extinguished. Over the years, I’ve heard more than one frustrated manager say, “They need to get on board or get out.” That way of thinking fails to harness the tremendous potential and energy that resistance can spark. And this begins with thinking about resistance differently.

Contrasting Responses to Resistance
First, imagine a world in which there was no resistance to change whatsoever. Chaos. We need some stability. We rely on the status quo to set our alarm clocks, to develop a skill by doing the same thing the same way multiple times, and to be sure of what we can expect from one another. We make improvements in our organizations by defining processes, developing standard work, and applying methods like Six Sigma to continuously improve and outperform the competition. So, there are some fundamentally positive things about resistance to change.

Let’s go with that. If our emotional response to resistance to change was “Oh, good,” rather than “Oh, no,” we would respond differently. When a coworker reacts to an idea by saying that it will never work, we would be eager to hear their point of view, rather than rushing to convince them they’re wrong, or trying to get them to just quietly go along. With a fresh approach, it is good news when someone expresses a concern, because that starts a dialogue and exchange of ideas, and the exploration of alternatives. The “resistor” may in fact see a flaw that needs to be addressed, or may have a better idea. Resistance is a source of energy that can be harnessed.

In contrast, the individual who has been silenced and is just quietly going along can pose a serious problem. Most of us have been in the family car with a member who is sullen or sulking, along for the ride but not participating, or disengaged. They manage to make everybody else pretty miserable during the journey. When we force people to do things they don’t want to do, that is when the problems really begin. When your child says, “You can’t make me,” in many ways they are right. We can’t force them to want to do something. Maybe we can force superficial compliance, but not much more. Unfortunately, our reaction is often to counter with, “Oh, yes I can,” which yields no benefit and heightens tension.

A New Way of Thinking
In my experience, people don’t resist change. People resist being changed. At home, at work, at school and at all ages, it is much the same. People resist being coerced or controlled. We don’t like feeling forced to do something, and we want to feel like we’re in control of our own destinies.

Nonetheless, as parents or as executives, we try to force change. Since we expect people to resist, we tend not to engage them early on in the problem definition, the goal-setting and the planning of change. Once the plan is developed and we have our solution in mind, we go out and try to sell it. And when we take that approach, we actually create additional resistance. This also fosters an organizational culture in which change is harder to achieve, where it is more difficult to gain alignment around a common vision.

Some key principles to keep in mind are:

  1. People resist changes they believe they have a good reason to resist. Understanding their thought process is critical.
  2. When people agree on what the problems are, they tend to be able to agree on new goals.
  3. When people agree on goals (the what), they are more likely to agree on actions (the how) to achieve those goals.
  4. There is often room for significant latitude in “the how.” When people are able to build their own approaches to achieving the goal, they discover energy and motivation. It makes the achievement more rewarding and satisfying.

This way of thinking may be new to you. When we think about resistance to change differently—and view it positively—a whole host of new approaches and strategies open up to us. In future articles or conversations, we can explore this further. I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you see things differently! iBi

Mark Bidlake tackles change management issues facing Fortune 500 companies and government, always looking for ways to harness the resistance. Contact him at [email protected] to exchange ideas on human capital and organizational transformation issues.