How to Work Effectively with Level 3 Resistance

Monday, January 3rd, 2011


by Rick Maurer

Level 3 is the deepest, most firmly entrenched form of opposition to any change. The problems are big and may appear overwhelming. (In Level 1 resistance, people don’t go along because they don’t understand or don’t agree with your interpretation of the data. Level 2 comes from a fear of what the change will mean.) In Level 3, people are opposing you. This resistance could be based on your history together, conflicting values, or who you represent (i.e. union versus management, differences in race or culture.) 

Some Tools for Working with Level Three 


1. Continually work on building relationships. Mistrust will remain high. Rumors and assumptions can derail negotiations instantly. The only hope is to keep doing everything you can to build trust.

2. Begin small. Begin working on issues where all sides see a benefit in proceeding, and all sides see that a mutual win is possible. Some corporations and unions began weakening Level 3 issues by working on issues that were important but not at the center of their struggle. For example, safety concerns could be one of those common ground issues. Both sides think it is important and both sides have similar goals.
3. Candid conversation is vital. Learn the skills of dialogue.

4. Support yourself. It is easy to get defensive and blow it. Individuals should do whatever it takes to be emotionally prepared to engage others. People get ready in various ways, but thorough preparation, sleep, exercise, and giving yourself sufficient time to hold the meeting can help. And breathing exercises are one of the most important things you can do to calm yourself before tense encounters.

5. Get people deeply involved in changes that affect them. Real Time Strategic Change is an example of one approach. A planning group made up of a cross-section of those who have a stake in the process and the outcome is formed. A meeting is held that invites up to 500 people to dissect this plan and create a new plan that meets a wide variety of interests. (see Real Time Strategic Change by Robert Jacobs, or Whole Scale Change by Dannemiller Tyson Associates, both published by Berrett-Koehler.)

Whatever approach you choose must be done in collaboration with the people who oppose you. Lack of trust is the major reason why they resist. Trying to inflict any strategy, no matter how well-intended – will fail.

6. Be prepared for setbacks. Working with Level 3 is extremely difficult. No single meeting will turn things around. Trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy. For example, even if forgetting to invite someone in on a conference call was a simple oversight, it could destroy weeks of good work between you.

7. Be prepared to walk away. There will be times when the risk or energy required isn’t worth it. In those instances, have the courage to walk away. You’ll be happier.

It is possible to work with Level 3; it just takes time. As Woody Allen once said, “The lions might lie down with the lambs, but the lambs won’t get much sleep.”



© 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.