Updated: Oct 19, 2020
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One of my most vivid attacks of resistance struck as I was about to leave for college. Moving away to school was going to be a huge adventure for me. I grew up in a small Midwest town where everyone knew everyone. College was my chance to finally strike out, start fresh, and embark on a life-altering journey of self-discovery. (I was young and clearly very idealistic. )
I’d packed the last
of my boxes and hauled them to the car. Looking around my half-empty room, I felt an unexpected tug of nostalgia as phantoms of memory appeared to pay their respects. I saw images of friends strewn across the beige pile carpeting, lounging in the armchair, and lying on the bed. Maybe we were listening to music or talking, or maybe we weren’t doing much of anything at all. Next, I looked at the big wooden desk in the corner where I sat surrounded by open textbooks and papers, feverishly cramming for exams. Then, I heard the echo of my mother’s voice, and turned to see her faded image in the doorway, arms thrown up in exasperation, complaining about the clothes scattered across the floor. Finally, I caught a glimpse of myself dramatically crossing the room, script in hand, practicing my lines and unleashing my character for an upcoming performance in the high school musical.
The memories evaporated, leaving me alone in a deserted room. Empty hangers lined the closet, and childhood mementos sat abandoned on the shelves. For the first time, the reality of what the change meant began to fully sink in. I was leaving my family, my friends, my school, my town. I was even leaving the pizza place where we’d hung out every Friday night since junior high. I wasn’t just stepping outside my comfort zone; I was letting go of everything I’d ever known. That’s when the cute fuzzy ball of nervous anticipation unexpectedly morphed into a monster panic attack, and resistance reared its ugly head.
Growth requires change. (Period.) What we may not realize is that change in turn requires transition. Specifically, I needed to transition
psychologically from what was to what will be as a result of the change. As an inexperienced teenager (who thought she was a grown-up) striking out on an adventure, the letting go of what was and allowing the what will be suddenly seemed overwhelming.
“Fail at what?” my father asked. He stared at me as I sat cross-legged, hugging my knees, wrapped into a little ball on my bed. His eyebrow arched as his mouth pulled back into a smile of baffled amusement. “Classes haven’t even started yet. What are you going to fail?” “EVERYTHING!” I wailed. “I just know I’m going to FAIL COLLEGE!”
My father was not one for drama, or any strong emotion really. He was a man who liked tangible facts.
“Past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior,” he counseled. “You’ve always done well in school. Why do you think you would fail now?”
“I don’t know,” I cried inconsolably, “I just will!”
What happened next is something I will never forget. My father didn’t argue, nor did he try to convince me what I was feeling was illogical. He just stood there with his brow furrowed as though deep in thought. He nodded his head silently and pulled down the corners of his mouth to punctuate a conclusion.
“Okay,” he sighed. “If that’s the way you feel, then you don’t have to go to college. Instead, you can stay here with your mother and I, live in your room here in the basement, and get a job flipping burgers at Hardee’s.”
I was dumbstruck. The words not only rang in my ears but reverberated in my soul. With a few careful brushstrokes, my father had painted a vivid picture of my alternative future. The thought of the uncertain will be was clearly a better alternative to the will be of eternally living in my parent’s basement. Silence hung in the air between us, and I glared at him in reluctant resignation.
“Fine, I’ll go,” I sighed. A smirk crept across my face despite my best efforts. I knew what he was doing, and I knew he was right. “Okay,” my father nodded, as though yielding to my decision. “We’ll leave tomorrow morning at 7:00.” He walked out of the room, and closed the door behind him.
Transition is where the real resistance shows up. How we engage and Manage Resistance during our growth journey will not only impact our ability to navigate the transition, but will determine how successful we are in making a change. Leadership & Proactively Engaging Resistance If only all resistance could be managed as easily as offering a teenager the alternative to live with her parents for the rest of her life. The world would be a much simpler place. What my father understood was that I was going through a transition, and resistance is a normal part of transition even when the change is something we want. My father gave me what I needed to help me take the first step to work through my resistance. You can do the same thing for the people you lead. Here are a few key factors to help proactively engage and manage resistance:
Recognize and Understand Resistance
Dig Beneath the Surface of Resistance
Work Through Resistance
Recognize and Understand Resistance Resistance is data. To understand what resistance is telling us we first have to recognize it:
How is resistance showing up? – People have a wide range of reactions to change. Early signs of resistance are easy to overlook or misinterpret. People may demonstrate anxiety. They overreact, or even underreact, in different situations. People may repeatedly ask the same questions, or appear confused and distracted. Alternatively, other signs of resistance are clear: “I’m not changing, and you can’t make me.”
Where or with whom is resistance showing up? – Is resistance showing up more in some functions and less in others? What about across business units or regions? Do you see a difference in how resistance is showing up under different leaders?
Once we recognize resistance, we can start to understand it: How are people responding, what are the patterns, and what is this information telling us? Too often we want to simply ignore, suppress, or push through resistance hoping it will just go away. If anything, it usually grows. If resistance does seem to suddenly disappear, often it has just gone underground, festering beneath the surface and ready to immerge when we least expect it. By recognizing and seeking to understand resistance, we can more productively work through it. Dig Beneath the Surface of Resistance Why does change cause resistance? The short answer is, “It doesn’t.” According to renowned transition expert, William Bridges, PhD, the root of our resistance is not in the change itself, but in the fear of losing what we have as a result of the change1. A fear of loss may focus on income or a job. We may fear losing a loved one, or losing our health due to a physical illness, etc. Alternatively, a loss can be far less tangible. It could be the loss of authority or a sense of mastery when stepping outside our comfort zone. It could be a loss of community or part of our identity. Losses that are less tangible are just as powerful, and they can be even more challenging because they’re more difficult to identify. Moreover, what may be a small loss to one person may be an enormous loss to someone else and vice versa. We don’t know how people will respond to change until we understand what they fear they may lose, and how important they perceive the loss to be.
Work Through Resistance Whether we’re leading change or experiencing it for ourselves, it’s important to go into the change process with the right mindset about transition and what it takes to manage resistance. Working through resistance is not a one-time event, and it’s not a linear path. People may move forward through transition and then start to resist and even backslide. Maybe new fears show up in a new stage of the change process. Maybe people have let go of denial, and reality of the change has finally kicked in. We have to prepare for inevitable resistance and be ready to work with people to manage through it. Working through resistance can be challenging. Here are just a few practical steps to help us on the journey:
Plan for Resistance – We cannot predict all the ways resistance may show up, but understanding the details of the specific changes required can help us anticipate who may be impacted and how. For example, a company plans a reorg, and one team will be combined with another team under a different leader. It’s a safe bet as people transition to the new reality of working together there will be resistance, not just from the group coming into the team but from the existing team as well.
Overcommunicate – People leading change are always closest to the information and decisions. As a result, it’s easy for leaders to overestimate what other people know and understand about change. Leaders tend to under-communicate the details, and stress can make it difficult for people they are leading to absorb the information. A rule of thumb is to communicate 3X times more than we think we need to communicate during change. If we do that, we might communicate just enough.
Be Present & Really Listen – We may want to push people through resistance to realize the benefits of change as quickly as possible. Rushing people through transition won’t work, and often we just make it worse. What will help is to spend time talking with people about their perceptions of the change and their experience through the transition. Ask open-ended questions, and listen with the intent to understand. Don’t argue with or try to “fix” how they feel. Resistance is data. What are we learning from what people are sharing with us?
Change How We Look at Change
Growth requires change, but we often look at change only as a series of steps or events (the “what” of change), as though we’re strategically moving pieces on a game board. This is true whether we’re executing large-scale changes at work or making individual changes in our own life. However, when change fails to produce desired results, most of the time it’s not because of a lack of strategy or because the change is not valuable. We fail to make successful changes because we don’t consider the transition people will go through as part of the change process.
If we’re truly invested in making a change, then we need to anticipate the natural transition process, and plan for how to manage the inevitable resistance, including our own. Only when we go through the transition of letting go of what was, and fully embrace what will be, will we successfully make changes in our business and beyond. 1 Managing Transitions, 25th anniversary edition: Making the Most of Change, by William Bridges with Susan Bridges (2017).