Is Resistance a Gift?

CHANGE MATTERSREMEMBER THE BOOK, Who Moved My Cheese that was so popular in the late 1990’s? The characters in that book – Hem, Haw, Sniff and Scurry – represented different reactions to change. Everyone wanted to be like Sniff and Scurry – always out in front, moving through and anticipating a change effortlessly. No one ever wanted to be like Hem or Haw, they seemed so resistant to the changes that needed to be made. The book implied that resistance during an organizational change was bad, or at least that’s what my Who Moved My Cheese seminar participants told me.

The truth is that if all you have in your organization during a change effort are Sniffs and Scurries you will spend a lot of time running in many different directions and there may even be a few cliffs involved. Balance during a change is most important – a balance of opinions and levels of change acceptance. And part of that balance is resistance.

Resistance IS a Gift

Resistance is the gift of information. Although it may seem like that itchy wool hat your great Aunt Martha gave you one Christmas, it is a gift nonetheless. And just like that wool hat, if you pay attention to the resistance and work with it instead of against it, it will really help your project’s success.

Resistance tells you that there is a problem of some kind with your proposed business change and you are being given the opportunity to partner with the resisting group or individual to solve the problem. The alternative is that the resistor(s) will go “underground” – still resisting, just not telling you. This can undermine your efforts every step of the way. And resistance unresolved is resistance that grows. If you announce a new business strategy and there is no resistance, be concerned. Be very concerned.

Smart leaders seek out resistance. They know that there are many smart people in their organizations and all of them couldn’t be in the room when the decision was made. By seeking out those people that have a critical view of the business, a leader can refine and improve their business strategy. At the very least, smart business leaders listen to the resistance and try to really understand what is being said.


Three types of resistance

In order to approach resistance and resistors productively, it is helpful to understand that all resistance is not the same. Resistance can be the most challenging part of a change effort. Our first instinct is to try to force resisters into going along with our plans. Or we try to discourage resistance by cutting off all voices of concern. Neither of these tactics will be ultimately successful. Since all resistance is not the same, different approaches are needed depending on the type of resistance encountered. When encountering someone you consider “resistant” probe first to make sure the individual is, in fact, resisting. S/He may just be voicing concerns, which when answered could alleviate their “resistance”. Resistance can occur in both a positive and a negative change and will completely depend on the individual’s view.

Blind Resistance

The first type of resistance is typically very hard for manager’s to handle. Blind resistance is resisting with little reasoning or logic behind it. A person might say “I think this is the wrong way to go” and when asked why, may not have a very good answer, or any answer at all. Blind resistance is sometimes seen when there has been nonstop, significant change in a company. It may also be seen when an employee is not only experiencing significant change at work but at home also. Individuals have a limit to how much change they can absorb successfully. Blind resistance is their way of saying “ENOUGH”!

The best way to approach an individual who is exhibiting Blind Resistance is to back off initially and wait a bit. It is not uncommon to see managers faced with blind resistance to pull rank and tell the individual to just accept the changes and move on. Oftentimes these individuals who are branded “resistant” and treated accordingly. That will not do the company and certainly not the individual any good. By backing off initially and waiting a bit, you are giving the individual a chance to get over their initial feelings and begin to see things differently. Come back to the individual and initiate a dialogue with them about the proposed changes. Get them to tell you the ‘worst thing that could happen’ if the change went forward.

By allowing someone exhibiting Blind Resistance to verbalize their ‘worst case scenario’ you are encouraging them to share their thought process with you. This helps you to see how they interpreted what they heard about the change, and since they probably aren’t the only one’s that heard it that way, it will help you refine your future communications on this topic

Ideological Resistance

Ideological Resistance is when an individual doesn’t agree with the proposed change and has logical and cogent arguments to support their position. Their resistance usually sounds reasonable and well thought out. It would not be out of the ordinary to hear Ideological Resistance among your ‘best and brightest’. After all, you hired them for their business abilities and it would be natural for them to look at the information available to them and have a different opinion.

When you are approaching a person who is showing Ideological Resistance, make sure you understand their arguments. That means that if they quote a source or two, look into it. Initiate a conversation with them solely for the purpose of understanding their point of view. Don’t take down the points of their argument so you can refute them later. That will defeat the purpose of the conversation.

Once you understand their argument, acknowledge their point of view. If they have taken the time to have a well thought out and organized opinion, acknowledging their side will go a long way in mitigating their resistance. Be honest with yourself and them. There are usually many different options when making a business decision. The one you choose is the best one for the current circumstance but isn’t usually the only option out there. They may think their idea is best because they don’t look at the organization and the business from the same vantage point you do.

The last step in moving this category of resistor over to your ‘side’ is to help them understand your decision from your perspective. Lay out your argument logically and convincingly. Sometimes that is all that is needed to help an Ideological Resistor move on.

Loss Resistance

The last of the three categories of resistance is one sometimes called “Political”. I call it ‘Loss Resistance’ because it is found when there is a perceived or real loss of something important or significant to that individual. The way Loss Resistance shows itself is in the language someone uses as they talk about it. It may sound like this: “Oh well, I can kiss my promotion goodbye now.” “Dr. Jones is going to be so mad, I’m the fourth sales rep he’s had this year.” “I can’t believe I won’t be doing that part of my job anymore, I really liked doing that.”

A perceived loss will obviously need to be handled differently than a real loss. And loss of a job is a whole other category.

A perceived loss can be shown to be otherwise by allowing the individual to talk about what that loss is. Once you know what they think they are losing, it will be easier to help them see that that is not so. Or it will be easier to give them ideas on how to minimize that perceived loss.

A real loss such as losing a manager or a chance to work on a specific project can cause a person to resist the change indefinitely. It is best to help them see how even though they may be losing something tangible in the short-term, that there are many more opportunities in the long-term. As long as that is true. Don’t be Pollyana in the face of a true loss of opportunity to this person.

Losing a manager is usually a real loss that brings about a perceived loss – loss of a chance for promotion, loss of having a great relationship with their boss. You can’t make the real loss go away, but you can help an individual gain some perspective. Dialogue with the employee about what they are not losing or what is not changing for them. Ask them what they are losing or giving up that they are happy about (it could happen). Help them focus on what they can control and can’t control as a way of giving the change some context. All of these questions and the dialogue that ensues will help this person move past their Loss Resistance much quicker.


Buying into the myth that resistance is bad will not help your business strategy succeed. Seeing resistance as a gift and understanding the different types of resistance will give you a chance to use all the information available. As you use that information you will be creating a foundation of success for this change, and for all future changes you will make.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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