How to Work Effectively with Level 1 Resistance

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010


by Rick Maurer


According to a survey of Fortune 500 executives, resistance is the primary reason that changes fail in organizations. In a similar survey conducted by Deloitte Consulting, 80 percent of the CIOs surveyed said that resistance was the main reason why technology projects failed. Not lack of skill or resources, but that soft, touchy-feely human reaction of resistance. 

These survey results are only partially right. Resistance is not the primary reason why changes fail. It is the reaction to resistance that creates the problem. In other words, management’s response when people resist a new initiative is often the event that hinders the change.

If we are serious about creating shifts from skepticism to support for change – or if we want to minimize opposition before it occurs – we must understand the nature of resistance.

What is Resistance?

Resistance is any force that slows or stops movement. It is not a negative force nor are there “resisters” out there just waiting to ruin our otherwise perfect idea. People resist in response to something. Something that we are doing evokes a reaction that we call resistance. The people resisting probably don’t see it as resistance; they see it as survival.

I have identified three levels of resistance.

Level 1 – Based on Information

This is low-grade resistance where there is no hidden agenda. People simply are opposed to the idea for any number of reasons: lack of information, disagreement with the idea itself, lack of exposure, or confusion.

Level 2 – Physiological and Emotional Reaction to This Change

Level 2 is an emotional physiological reaction to the change. Blood pressure rises, adrenaline flows, pulse increases. It is uncontrollable and based on fear that they may lose face, friends, even their jobs. Level 2 resistance can be triggered without conscious awareness.

Level 3 – Bigger Than the Current Change

This is deeply entrenched stuff and is bigger than the ideas at hand. People are not resisting the idea. In fact, they may love the idea itself; they are resisting you. They may resist because of their history with you or they may oppose who you represent.
Some traditional management-labor relationships are Level 3. In these divisive relationships, no idea can be judged on its own merits. A Level 3 relationship almost guarantees that people will oppose any idea.

Working with Resistance

In dealing with resistance it is critical that your strategy matches the Level of Resistance you are facing.

To deal with Level 1 resistance, people need to be given information – newsletter, e-mails, memos, and videos. They need to gain an understanding of the proposed change. They must see ideas from their perspectives and must have a clear understanding about how the change impacts them.

People also need a chance to engage with the information. They need a chance to chew on what they hear. They must feel that they have the opportunity to make a contribution to the idea or warn of potential pitfalls.

In meetings, give people a chance to take you on and argue with you. And you must go into these meetings willing to be influenced.

  • After making a presentation to the staff, give them a chance to talk with you and give their opinions.
  • Hold town hall meetings with a cross-section of the organization. Include time for people to ask questions and give their input.
  • Build in ways to get back to people to explain to them how your thinking has been influenced by what they had to say. You need not agree with everything you hear, but you do owe it to people to get back to them and explain why you chose the course you did.

Subsequent columns will explore ways to address Level 2 and Level 3 issues. 1994.


© 2009 Rick Maurer. Rick uses his Change without Migraines™ to advise organizations on how to lead change effectively. He is author of many books including Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Recently, he created the Change Management Open Source Project, a free resource for people interested in change in organizations.