Let’s Replace “Resistance” with “Objection”

I propose that we replace the concept and word of “resistance” with the concept and word of “objection” in the change management industry. To date, we have cavalierly used “resistance” to characterize the people who don’t choose to go along with our change management plans. These people “resist” us for reasons that have been well documented in books, blogs and articles. But these people deserve more credit than this.

My first career was in the field of behavioral health. I practiced it, taught it and supervised it for over 15 years. My specialty was family therapy, which is systems-theory based and interaction-focused. The family therapy field realized that diagnosing a person as resistant to change – as would a psychoanalyst – carried a whole package of negative consequences. Both the professional who used the term and the patient suffered. In addition, the concept of resistance was not useful. It told the professional nothing practical to do next.

I credit identification of the problems of resistance to a friend named Steve deShazer, who helped millions from his modest office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 2004, Steve published the landmark article “The death of resistance,” which led the behavioral health industry to rethink its use of the term “resistance.” (I should add that Steve encountered lots of objections to his revolutionary thinking.)

Thinking about resistance in my current career as an internal Lean and Six Sigma consultant, I decided it might be helpful if we had an alternative to the concept and terminology of resistance. So I suggest that the appropriate replacement is “objection.” In other words, consider that instead of saying “the employees resist change” we’d say “the employees object to change.”

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Imagine a typical business problem. The management appoints a consultant to fix a problem that is bleeding the company’s resources. The project team, which often is made up of middle managers rather than customer-facing employees, devises a plan. This plan typically affects the employees. We call this change management, which, in theory, allows us to scientifically plan how we present our plan to the affected employees. In practice, change management often results in shrinking the change so that it can be better tolerated by the affected employees. We hope to arrange it so the employees won’t object.

Unfortunately, those involved in change management often see themselves as separate – and as smarter – than the employees who actually do the work. This posture is inevitably noticed by the employees and, naturally, they respond in ways allowed by the company’s culture. In other words, they may not simply tell the manager, “This is a stupid idea.” We have enthusiastically observed the common employee response and called it resistant, borrowing this pseudoscientific and pejorative term from psychoanalysis and distancing ourselves from the interpersonal hostility. Employees probably have names for us, too, which may well include words like “pushy” and “autocratic.” The connotation of all these words, including resistance, is non-cooperative.

I think it’s time that we change leaders take more responsibility for leading good changes in which people don’t call each other names. When we respect the workers, we are true to Lean principle of respect for people (Emiliani, 2003). We start by abandoning the words – and concepts – of “resistant” and “resistance.” Instead, let’s consider how to lead change in a way that prevents objection to it.

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This requires only basic good leadership. For centuries, good leadership has involved transparency, participation, engagement and honesty. When we embrace these ideas and lead change according to these principles, name calling – and objection to change – is minimized.

I have found that it helps to understand responses to change messages as a form of communication about the sender and the message itself. Non-cooperative responses usually mean that leaders failed to listen and pushed their agendas instead of promoting a participative solution. This is the idea behind Peter Senge’s (2000) phrase: People don’t resist change. They resist being changed. In my words, people don’t object to change, they object to being changed.

Try out living your professional life without resistance. Think about what messages you are sending and receiving about change. Consider people’s responses to you as messages about your messages – and you.

The real trick is how to prevent the situations in which one group calls another group names. Fortunately, good leadership and good interpersonal skills show us how to behave. I recommend some insightful new work in this area by business consultant Les McKeown (2012). His recent book describes a personal style called the “synergist,” which can be hired or learned.


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