Saturday, November 15, 2008


I have wanted to post a blog entry on the subject of resistance for some time, but for some reason have not gotten around to it. So the question is: “What have I been resisting?”

Resistance is a subtle and interesting thing within each individual and group. Unless you are aware and observant you may not readily identify resistance in one of its many forms. And, you may find that you unwittingly participate in the process of resisting while thinking that you are helping move a project or change effort along.

Edgar Schein, one of the leading experts on culture says that individuals and organizations resist change when there is a lack of psychological safety. Schein defines psychological safety as the ability to see the possibility of solving a problem without loss of identity or integrity. Without psychological safety individuals or groups will deny data that creates discomfort; in other words, people will resist. This denial of discomforting data is called strategic myopia. (Organizational Culture and Leadership p. 298-300)

According to Peter Block, this denial of data or pushing back against the proposed change or project is a reaction to an emotional process taking place within the individual (or group). It is a natural reaction when faced with change, or the prospect of having to address difficult organizational problems.

Block provides an interesting list of what he calls The Faces of Resistance that may help you in identifying when you are working with someone or a group that is using resistance as a tool to avoid change. Keep in mind that some of these forms of resistance are very subtle and elusive:
  • Give me more detail – The person (organization) keeps asking for finer and finer bits of information.
  • Flood you with detail – The person (organization) gives you too much detail.
  • Time – The person (organization) says that he/she/they would really like to change but the timing is off.
  • Impracticality – The person (organization) says that he/she/they live in the “Real World” and are facing “Real Problems”, and can find practical problems with any change or solution.
  • Attack – The person (organization) adopts the most direct form of resistance – attack the change agent directly.
  • Confusion – The person (organization), after hearing the explanation or description of the suggested change several times, continues to be confused, and resists concepts necessary to understand a situation or idea.
  • Silence – The person (organization) remains stoically silent and passive in the face of the need for change.
  • Intellectualizing – The person (organization) “…starts exploring theory after theory about why things are the way they are…” “Spending a lot of energy spinning theories is a way of taking the pain out of a situation.”
  • Moralizing – The person (organization) "...makes great use of certain words and phrases: ‘those people’ and ‘should’ and ‘they need to understand.’ It is all about those other people, not me."
  • Compliance – Even when the person (organization) complies with a recommended change with no negative reaction at all, you may find that you have a low-energy agreement that will result in initial compliance, with gradual return to the old systems.

(Flawless Consulting – Peter Block, Chapter 8 Understanding Resistance, P. 140-148)

Not every question or push-back is a form of resistance. But, with these thoughts in mind, maybe you will be a little better prepared to identify when you or people you are working with are resisting rather than working together to change things for the better.

I suggest reading the chapter on resistance in Peter Block’s book Flawless Consulting for a better description of how to identify and deal with resistance in its many forms.

One final note; Schein points out that in dealing with resistance that grows from a lack of psychological safety the visionary leader becomes essential because “…the vision sometimes serves the function of providing the psychological safety that permits the organization to move forward.” (Organizational Culture and Leadership, p. 301)

If you are leading a change effort and feel significant amounts of resistance (which you can now identify), you might ask yourself whether you have provided the individuals or groups that are resisting with sufficient ability to see the possibility of solving a problem without loss of identity or integrity.

So, why are you putting off that important project or change effort? What are you resisting?