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Why Resistance to Change is Delicious

Lucy Ball
Lucy Ball

I have been trying to write a difficult email. Actually it is written but not sent. I have not sent it now three times. Someone is expecting it and keeping my commitments is really important to me, but I still can’t send it. The subject of the email is not really of broad interest but the way it has opened my eyes to the value of resistance may well be.

I spoke to two friends about my email. “Help me. Why can’t I send it?” I asked. One friend said – “Don’t be a chicken, get over yourself and just send the thing”. Another friend said – “The resistance to sending it is telling you something, why don’t you just sit with that for a while ‘til you understand what it is.”

In the organisational change world resistance is often talked about as something to be ‘removed’, to be ‘resolved’. It is a ‘blocker’ to change, it is something to work through or around. Conversations about resistance are often polarised. For example, in a health service client, the commercially essential move for performance improvement was described by the change leaders as being ‘resisted’, ‘opposed’ and ‘blocked’ by the concerns of long serving nurses.  How can we get past this resistance in order to deliver our change programme, we were asked?

Our instincts at Ideas Unlimited have always been to engage with resistance, to hear it, to understand it, to resolve the polarised argument in order to make progress. But if I am honest with myself, have I been doing this within the “resistance is bad/change is good” paradigm? Have I been taking the side of ‘the change agents’ (who are usually paying the bill) and seeing my engagement with resistance or resistors as something necessary in order to deliver the change? Or have I really seen the value of engaging with resistance as the route to sustainable change?

Having been in Cape Cod last year at the Gestalt International Study Centre, I have begun to expand my notion of resistance (with still a way to go). In the therapeutic world resistance is delicious, it is exciting, it is to be invited, it is evidence of engagement with the therapy. Resistance is ‘the work’. When it arises, the therapist’s eyes light up. ‘Now, we’re working’ they say to themselves. In the consulting/leadership/organisational change world it is often received as a necessary part of the job but welcomed with less enthusiasm. “That was a tough meeting” we say (I say) or “Blimey. I’ve earned my gin and tonic today”.

The Gestalt therapist or consultant assumes that even the paying client comes to them with both a desire to change that has led them to seek help and a whole load of things that are stopping them making the change. To quote the late (and, by all accounts, lovely man) Edwin Nevis:

“The Gestalt Oriented Consultant assumes that when people ask for help, there is energy in them that is directed against acceptance of help from others… there is great value in the client having strong forces against change even when it believes that the system can function better if changes are made”. Organizational Consulting: A Gestalt Approach, 2001

The first way not to polarise the conversation about resistance is not to assume that some people are pro-change and others are against change. That is a simplistic view that does not acknowledge the ‘for and against’, the ambivalence about change in any individual or part of the system as well as in the whole. It is also a very convenient way for the paying client (for example the CEO or Director) to distract a consultant from really helping them – ‘it’s not me that needs to change, it’s them over there – go and fix them!” – a convenient and self-preserving projection.

The second way not to polarise the conversation about resistance, is not to label it only as a force opposed to change but also as an optimistic sign that change is being considered and engaged with. It is only when we really start to think that change could be possible that resistance rises in opposition – it leaps up to the defence of some valuable things. It leaps up to protect us from failure, it leaps up to tell us we are OK as we are, it leaps up to say ‘hey don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’. It is part of changing. And because it is leaping up, in us or in others, we know that we are starting to get serious about change.

In business, resistance is often seen as something that might slow us down, something that might get in the way if change leaders give it too much attention. A bit like the behaviour of an incalcitrant child on a family day out, we don’t want to pay it too much attention in case it ruins our picnic. The Gestaltists hold to the Paradoxical Theory of change. This theory holds that in order to change we must pay close attention to the forces that are acting now both for and against change. They are of equal value. The more we are aware of both now the more likely change will occur (and the more sustainable the change is likely to be.)

Reminding ourselves of all the reasons why change is necessary have obvious benefits. The benefits of openly exploring our resistance may not be so obvious. Here is my attempt to describe what paying attention to resistance may do for leaders of change.

If we pay attention to our resistance we may learn:

  • what must be preserved through the change that is valuable to our customers and that will erode our business if we ignore it
  • how a change must be implemented in order for stakeholders to get fully behind it
  •  that our vision for the change could be even bolder or more ambitious than it is
  • what strengths we are not appreciating in our current way of working that will be the very strengths we
  • need to pull this change off
  • what additional support or development may support us in making the change
  •  what we are not acknowledging in others that will unlock their cooperation and potential
  •  that others are not as against the change as we thought they were
  •  that the only things getting in our way are actually more within our power to fix than we could have believed.

Of course resistance may tell you that the change was never a good idea in the first place, but wouldn’t that be good to know now if it were true?

With this in mind, we say to the leaders of change at the Healthcare Organisation, not only must you embrace, hear and get into dialogue with the resistance in your nurses, you must also explore the resistance in yourself.

I still haven’t sent the letter but my acknowledgement of the reasons for my resistance to sending it, and the action I take with that awareness, are more likely to bring about the change I really want than the email itself could ever have done.