Tuesday Morning Focal Point

Overcoming Resistance to Change

Sometimes during the summer months, I think back at times to childhood summer camps.  I always loved the campfires in the evening and thoroughly enjoyed singing the great campfire songs.  One of the ones I think about is the classic “Goin’ on a Lion Hunt.”  The song talks about the hunt and running into various barriers like mountains, rivers, lakes etc. and the dilemma of whether to go over, under, around or through, to get to the other side and continue the hunt. Being in leadership often means you are Goin’ on a Lion Hunt.

You need to go over, under, around and through

Leadership can be like a lion hunt at times.  Leaders encounter barriers, roadblocks and various other things that get in the way of moving forward and mobilizing others.  Reality is, if there are not some barriers and roadblocks in the way, you likely aren’t making meaningful progress into new areas.  A common barrier is the resistance we get from others.  As a rule, people do resist change.  They resist change because they like the familiar.  They resist change because they want predictability and don’t want to have to deal with the unknowns of what they may encounter if moving in a new direction.

Sometimes in one on one coaching sessions with clients we take the time to do a deep dive and examine what is truly going on when the organization is resisting change.  When you slow it down and look closely, you can often identify the resistance.  Leadership is often finding ways around the resistance that others put in front of us.  That resistance comes in many forms.  The resistance can be from internal or external folks.  Regardless, good leaders find ways to identify and name the resistance that we are getting, seek to understand it and then work around it with people.  This may involve some hand holding.  Even with our most important and senior officials.

The Leader in Crisis - LinkedIn

Where does resistance to change come from?

So, let’s look closer at why people resist.  Remember, we all resist at times and sometimes even our A-players resist.  It’s your job to work around the resistance in some way – that is what good leaders do.  The main reasons people resist include:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of success
  • Lack of confidence in being able to sustain the change
  • Anxiety related to about no longer being needed
  • A past bad experience being triggered
  • Underlying emotion or psychological pain that is completely unrelated

Remember that not all resistance is conscious.  Sometimes someone might resist and not even know why.  They might not even realize at first that they are giving off resistance.  It might take you as the leader being curious about their response(s) in a way that allows them to safely explore what is really going on for them.  Then, using your leadership skills help them put a language to what is happening.  At that point, it is much easier to support them around that resistance to mobilize as you need them to.  Resistance comes in all shapes and sizes but needs to be named and acknowledged as valid.  Then and only then can you lead people around it.

Cameron’s Call to Action

for Leadership in the Face of Resistance

  1. When someone on your team is resisting, have a fulsome exploratory dialogue and show genuine curiosity – listen.
  2. Ask questions to better understand the resistance. Validate that it is real and help create a language around it.
  3. If there is an underlying concern, name it, discuss it and then co-construct a way around the resistance.
  4. Remember to always tie change and action back to the company core – values, purpose and mandate.

Cameron is an Executive Coach and Consultant specializing in business growth and creating psychologically healthy workplaces.