Whether we are trying to lead change, sell a product, or come to a team decision, we encounter resistance. When we encounter resistance in an organization, we tend to get frustrated and blame those resisting our proposal, our pitch, our leadership, or our point of view. This is a natural human tendency. Sustainable leaders see resistance not as a place for blame, but as information. Moreover, without discovering what information we are receiving in the resistance, we will be unlikely to find a way forward.
My two-year-old helps me unload the dishwasher most mornings when we come downstairs. She pulls dishes out at random, and hands them to me. Before I get a chance to really get that dish or fork put away, she hands me another. I end up working as fast as I possibly can to keep her from breaking whatever is in the dishwasher.
After we are done, she insists on pushing the racks in (“Do-it. I-SELF!”), and closing the dishwasher door (“Coze-it, Daddy!”).
While I admire her growing agility, independence, and desire to spend time with me, my two-year old’s “help” is often more work for me. On several occasions recently, I have had to find something else for her to do, relocate her, or put either my wife or her siblings in charge to play with her while I finish. She is utterly confused when I tell her to stop helping me. In this way, I am giving her resistance. Of course, helping her understand how to help, helpfully, is the challenge of working with a two-year-old.
The problem is that we most often treat resistance from others as their obstinance, old-fashionedness, being blind, being stuck, or being deficient.
Where We See Resistance
We hit resistance points in every relationship we have at some point or another.
- “How about next weekend instead?”
- “I’m not ready to get married yet.”
- “I don’t want to clean my room.”
- “Why haven’t you cut the grass yet?”
- They’re not following your sales pitch.
- The boss doesn’t ok your project.
- The person you’re trying to help says no and walks away.
- People start dragging their feet.
- Someone goes behind your back.
- People complain about changes you’re making.
- A longstanding account moves to another firm.
- “We’ve never done it this way before!”
- Can you think of some more?
When we encounter resistance, we tend to get frustrated: “Why won’t they just…?” And psychologically, the human tendency is to blame the resistor for the frustration. All humans tend to explain others’ behavior more as an issue of someone’s personality, and tend to discount the situations they are in; whereas for ourselves, we tend to explain our behaviors by our situations, and see them less as personality-driven. This is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Here’s what we may hear ourselves saying:
- “They just don’t get it.”
- “They can’t see why it’s so important.”
- “They’re lazy.”
- “They can’t think outside the box.”
- “They betrayed me.”
- “They aren’t as loyal to the cause as I am.”
- “They’re stuck in old ways of thinking.”
While we humans are wired to see resistance this way, leaders of sustainable organizations know we have to push past and through our normal tendencies if we really want to achieve our goals.
Instead of using resistance to blame others who don’t do what we want, leaders of sustainable companies know that resistance is information.
But what information? And how do we get it? What do we do with it?
The Blame Model Behaviors
I will admit it: I have struggled with this throughout my life. I have found two behaviors in myself that tend to suggest I am not treating resistance as information – that make me call a halt and try again.
When someone is resisting, our first instinct is to think they might not have understood us. So, we explain some more. Most of the time, though, they resist not because they are not knowledgeable enough, but because we haven’t either connected to what they really care deeply about or found a way to help them care about what is important to us. In other words, two things are missing: 1) connecting at the level of values and beliefs, and 2) empathizing with the person on the other side of the conversation.
The second thing we tend to do when we encounter resistance is to pour on the persuasion. We start trying to sweeten the deal, increase pressure, or paint pictures of what missed opportunities or disasters will occur if our interlocutor does not adopt our proposed course of action. Aside from the logical fallacies we might employ in our desperation, this behavior also misses the point. We tend to add features, fiddle with price, and talk about the pains we can relieve.
We have, though, missed what is most important to the other person: what value does this bring to them? What benefits them? Moreover, we have not established a level of trust where we can speak on a level playing field: either we consider them to be beneath us, or above us. We have not established equality, where we can speak openly.
The Information in Resistance
To summarize, the information we are getting is usually indirect:
- Relevance: We have not connected with someone about what is very important to them.
- Relationship: We have not created an empathy bridge between us.
- Value: We have not demonstrated that we have something that is of value to them.
- Trust: We have not created a level of trust where people are willing to speak openly with us.
There is one underlying factor to these four. We often hear it summarized in the blame model of resistance as this: people fear change and resist change. But that is not entirely true: people fear loss and try to avoid loss.
For most of us, losses are more costly than the things we could potentially gain in any given situation – at least the way our brains are wired. To overcome this psychological risk-benefit analysis, we have to establish relevance, relationship, value, and trust.
How do we get there?
Let’s face it: we can often make some assumptions about people, but to really get to know them, we have to ask questions. That is how we move from the blame model of resistance to resistance as information.
We ask questions that help us get at:
- What is relevant.
- What they are feeling (empathy).
- What they value.
- What they need to trust us enough to do business.
These questions can be ones you ask of everyone, but they cannot sound canned. But by starting with questions of “why”, we tend to get to the relevance and value quickly. By employing active listening techniques, we can establish empathy and trust. From there, it may be digging deeper into the why, the who, the what, the when, and the how – and that can help us develop conversations and proposals that move from resistance to allyship, collaboration, and beneficial work.