The jewel of resistance

Resistance to change is precious. Here’s how to make the most of it.

The jewel of resistance
Photo by Michael Dziedzic / Unsplash

When planning a change in the workplace, the topic of resistance always comes up. And when it does, it seems bad—resistance as debris to be cleared away or routed around.

In this way, labelling people “resistant” is a complaint without recommendation. It’s a wish that things were other than they are.

Resistance prioritizes the wannabe change-maker over the people being asked to change.

Resistance is not a problem. It’s a signal

People who resist a change are telling you:

  • They care about something. What are they afraid of losing? Someone in this state might not be able to articulate their worry. So draw pictures, make models. Once a shared explanation arises, frustration will disappear.
  • You’ve overlooked something. Find the details you’ve missed. Are people burned out after many botched changes? If so, take special care.
  • They are your future champions. Convince them of the value of the change and they’ll support it wholeheartedly.

The purpose of resistance

I leave you with this, from Sara Fine’s 1986 study of how librarians respond to change:

“Resistance will always exist, … acceptance of a current innovation is no assurance that the next level of change won’t be resisted, perhaps even more vigorously, as people make commitments to what they have achieved and mastered […]. Perhaps the purpose of resistance is to give us pause, force us to slow down, and impel us to pay attention to our basic human needs and values.”
April 15, 2024: edited for length.