The jewel of resistance

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

The jewel of resistance
Photo by Jason D / Unsplash

When planning a change, the topic of resistance always comes up. Resistance is the space—sometimes big, sometimes contested—between:

  1. What someone would like other people to do, and
  2. What they actually, already do.

As I listen to many managers and consultants talk things over, the sense is that resistance is generically bad: an obstacle to surmount, a difficulty to overcome, a blockage to clear away so that human beings—in their naturally absorbent, towel-like condition—can soak in an infinite amount of change.

Approached this way, calling a person or group “resistant” is a complaint without recommendation. A wish that things were other than they are. It prioritizes the opinion of the wannabe change-maker over the knowledge and expertise of the people being asked to change.

For me, resistance is something else entirely: it is a jewel.

It’s a treasure, but not one you have to dig for—instead, it presents itself every time, sparkling, tough as hell, multifaceted.

When you uncover resistance

Withhold judgement, but bring as much equanimous observation as you humanly can. Think of resistance is a sign, a smell, an opportunity.

Its a sign that people care about something. What are people afraid of losing, or trying to hang onto, or worried will happen again? There’s wisdom there. Figure it out. Importantly, people in this state may not be able to clearly identify or explain their worry. Draw a picture, make a model. Once there is a shared explanation, that frustration will evaporate.

Its a smell that something important has been overlooked—or even if it hasn’t, that not everybody affected has had a chance to sort things out to their satisfaction. It’s also possible that what you smell is the melting plastic odor of burnout: the organization may be at the tail end of a series of botched changes. This is an indication to take special care.

Its an opportunity to locate the people who really give a shit and bring them around to your cause. Often, the most resistant people are just a few steps away from becoming your biggest boosters.

The lesson of history

In the 1980s, Sara Fine studied how librarians approached and responded to technological change over time, and produced an outlook I find super helpful whenever I encounter a new group of people grappling with change. I hope you do too. I leave you with this, from Fine’s “Technological innovation, diffusion and resistance: an historical perspective” (1986):

“Perhaps the lesson of history is that resistance will always exist, that 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 it is also the lesson of history that resistance to change is just as crucial to our survival as is the acceptance of change. 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.”