What’s under the resistance?

Emoji with scowling face, downturned mouth, mostly-closed eyes, and a hand raised in the "stop" position.Resistance is the bane of many change managers’ and leaders’ existence. And many of them try to just power through, using carrots and sticks – offers of rewards and threats of punishment – to get employees on board with change initiatives.

In the timelessly annoying words of Dr. Phil… how’s that workin’ for you?

My experience would indicate: notsogreat.

When change managers look at resistance as A Thing To Be Overcome, by sheer will and force if necessary, resistance goes underground, becoming more subtle and therefore more insidiously troublesome.

Plus, you lose a valuable opportunity to improve your initiative. (Yes, I said improve.)

It’s a basic misunderstanding of what resistance to change actually is.

Resistance to change is not malicious

Unless your hiring and management process is horribly broken (which I’m guessing it isn’t!), you don’t have people on staff who resist for fun, for grins and giggles, for the “joy” of making trouble.

Resistance has reasons

There are many possible reasons why someone might appear to be resisting any given change initiative, and they fall into one of three basic categories.

  • Logical resistance: “I have a factual reason why I think this change is a bad idea and is likely to fail.”
  • Emotional resistance: “This change scares me or makes me anxious because I don’t know what might happen.”
  • Blended resistance, logical + emotional: “This change scares me because of this factual reason that is threatening to me and / or to the outcome of the change.”

Understanding where someone is coming from, which of these three types of resistance they’re experiencing, means you have the opportunity to approach them with understanding and support, instead of carrots and sticks.

Logical resistance offers you the opportunity to improve your change initiative, as I mentioned above, because they’ve identified a potential problem that needs addressing. These people are your risk managers!

Emotional resistance offers you the opportunity to communicate more effectively about what’s happening and why – because if one person is experiencing anxiety, others are also.

Blended resistance offers you the opportunity to determine if the logical piece of their resistance is a system-wide issue – which can be addressed as you’d address the purely logical – or an individual-specific issue, which can be addressed through training, coaching, and communication.

I go over these three categories of resistance, and what to do about them, in lots more detail in my latest LinkedIn newsletter The Leadership Leap, which you can read here.

The key point about resistance

Resistance is a blanket term for a wide range of employee experience. It’s as if we called every type of fruit “fruit” – no one would know if you meant an apple, a watermelon, or a blueberry.

Taking the time to dig under that blanket term and discover what’s lurking there – yes, it’s demanding; yes, it takes effort and time – but I promise you, it’s a lot more effective in getting your change initiative to a successful, sustainable outcome than the old carrot-and-stick approach.


If you’re a technology consultant or vendor – how can you handle these types of resistance in your clients’ teams? Contact me and we’ll set a time to talk about it!