Leadership and Resistance

Using resistance to lead effectively

If you truly understand resistance, you seldom need to deal with it: You manage its cause before it even manifests itself!

Understanding resistance

The leader understands the source of resistance and deals with it adequately. Some typical sources  are:

  • It could be that the team member simply doesn’t like you. Not that it’s your task to be liked by everyone, yet it could be a veiled message that there’s insufficient trust or that they don’t feel taken seriously. This means your task is to invest in the relationship.
  • When you ask something that in some way feels threatening, this elicits fear and the natural tendency is avoidance: Your team member doesn’t do something because their feeling of safety feels threatened. The transformational leader sees this as an opportunity to help the other step out of their comfort zone and learn something new.
  • The team member may feel attacked, or experiences your request as criticism. In such a case their resistance is a way to maintain their self-esteem. Also here (if the feedback was given in a respectful way) the transformational leader sees an opportunity for personal growth of the team member, thereby making them more resilient.
  • Behavior is often maintained because it delivers advantages. Changing the way someone is used to doing things might mean giving up these (often short-term) advantages, whereas your focus is on other advantages in the long term. Helping the team member understand why a particular change is beneficial is then the preferred route.
  • There is a tendency in all nature to resist change. This is the idiom: ‘Better the devil you know’. The current way is known and thereby predictable. How something new will turn out isn’t yet known and leads to uncertainty, which one rather avoids. In brief, uncertainty and unpredictability of a new status quo can be a source of resistance.

Understanding may be enough, yet sometimes you will actively need to deal with a team member’s resistance.

Dealing with resistance

Some tips have already been given above. When dealing with resistance the first thing to remember is what to do and what not to do:

  • Don’t use tricks: Nobody likes to be manipulated or trusts a phony.
  • Concede when the team member comes up with a valid argument and collaborate to come up with an adjusted plan. You need to be sure the argument is valid and not an excuse (that is, resistance). When it’s an excuse, conceding means you condone their resistance.
  • Don’t persuade: When you go this route, you may expect more resistance. The harder you try, the more their need for autonomy is threatened. In the long run, you end up in a power struggle in which nobody wins.

What to do then? The first point is to change your attitude towards resistance. Seeing it as something difficult, unwanted and annoying limits your options: It doesn’t take the team member’s situation into proper account; what is needed is a thorough understanding what the proposed solution really means to your team members. It would be naïve to think that they should necessarily be happy to do things that will be difficult for them. You should rather expect resistance. In fact, you might as well welcome it: It is a sign of engagement. Your attitude, therefore, is to welcome resistance, see the team member’s objections as valid and take these objections very seriously.

Some tips:

  • Make resistance a subject for discussion: For example, mention that the team member doesn’t seem happy about the proposal.
  • Ask what the objections are and take these seriously: Instead of defending your proposal, you agree that what you propose won’t be easy, will cost a lot of energy, etcetera.
  • Clarify the available options or, even better, get the team member to clarify the options (and guard against a defensive reaction from your side, as this is the same as persuasion).
  • Where necessary, sketch the consequences (or get the team member to do this): When choosing not to intervene the situation will remain unchanged. If this is an acceptable option, leave the choice to the team member. Sometimes you will need to be firm and mention when certain consequences are unacceptable.


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