What Blocks Support?

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

What Blocks Support?

Examines what gets in the way of change.


by Rick Maurer

When asked why so many major changes in organizations failed (“Why Change Fails,” William Schiemann, Across the Board magazine, April 1992), executives gave resistance as the primary reason. Not much has changed over the years, and my guess is that many readers would give the same answer.

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 first 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. (“Resisters” don’t represent the lost Myers-Briggs personality type.) We all resist things that go against our interests. Life would be impossible without this protective mechanism. People resist in response to something. They don’t see it as resistance; to them it is survival.

I have identified three levels of resistance.

Level 1 – Based on Information

This resistance is based on information: facts, figures, ideas. It is the world of thinking and rational action. Level 1 is the world of presentations, diagrams, and logical arguments. (PowerPoint was invented for Level 1.) Level 1 may come from lack of information, disagreement with the idea itself, lack of exposure, or confusion.

Many make the mistake of treating all resistance as if it were Level 1. In other words, they give people more information (better arguments, detailed facts) when something completely different is called for.

Level 2 – Physiological and Emotional Reaction to This Change

Level 2 is a physiological reaction to the change. Blood pressure rises, adrenaline flows, pulse increases. It is based on fear; people fear they will lose face, friends, even their jobs. In The Emotional Brain (Touchstone Books, 1998), author Joseph LeDoux refers to this, quite fittingly, as “the fear response.” It is uncontrollable. Level 2 can be triggered without conscious awareness.

LeDoux states that the emotions, not the intellect, are the basic survival mechanism of all living organisms. They are what warns us of danger and allow us to take action instantly, before our conscious mind even knows what’s going on.

Imagine talking to your team about a proposed restructuring. People ask you Level 1 questions such as, “How much will it cost? When will it begin? What’s the timeline?” Then you mention that there is a slight possibility that this could result in downsizing. Suddenly, two-thirds of your team drops to Level 2. You may as well quit going over slides that speak to the rational mind; these folks are responding from a different part of the brain. When they are working from Level 2, they perceive the situation as dangerous and they are preparing for fight or flight, even if they aren’t aware of it.

Level 3 – Bigger Than the Current Change

This is deeply entrenched stuff, 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. The Level 3 relationship almost guarantees that people will oppose any idea.

Working with Resistance

Level 1 lends itself to presentations and question and answer sessions. Level 2, however, requires conversation in addition to presentation. Listening and meaningful dialogue are essential. Level 3 demands that you begin to rebuild relationships before you try to present new ideas. Or, at the very least, your change management strategies must include strategies that build bridges while you plan and implement.

© 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. www.beyondresistance.com