Hearing Doubt Rather Than Seeing Resistance

Setting the Table

My thinking in the last several years has focused on how the routine and ordinary conversations in organization affect their willingness and ability to see the future different from the past. These conversations are based on recurring themes (frequently repeated conversations or stories that reinforce “this is the way we do things around here”) and common vocabulary (words or phrases that occur frequently and which have a strong and pointed meaning in the organization).

One such phrase, “resistance to change”, is well-established in the lexicon of managers, leaders, and consultants. (Google Scholar returned 82,700 results, 7,500 in the last year alone.) It typically refers to followers who fail to readily adopt new ways of thinking or doing. It strikes me that labeling people who are slow to adopt a new idea as resistant is to cast them as a force to be overcome, as if they were the enemy or villains.

Enemies and villains are people to be conquered and subjugated. They are expected to pay a price for their opposition. After they have been subdued they are regarded with a wary eye. Trust is out of the question. Constant supervision and vigilance is required. Their good will is always suspect.

Is this healthy, to see followers as the enemy for no other reason than that they have a different opinion or preference or belief, or questions about what change means to them? If so, how do leaders simultaneously think of followers as allies in producing goods and services for customers and as a cohort that must be conquered or overcome in some way? So which is it – friends, or foes?

My Opinion, Your Attitude

Resistance to change is often associated with another phrase, a somewhat damning one, where resisters are accused of having a “bad attitude”. The phrase can be understood on many levels but its connection to “resistance to change” further deepens the divide between leaders and followers.

In order to name an attitude, it is the world view of the leader (not that of the follower about to be labeled) that is hard at work. It requires the leader to process spoken words or observable behaviors and interpret them in some way.

It is the interpretation to which the leader gives voice but without any corresponding sense of ownership or accountability. Rather, the leader’s opinion is assigned to the follower in the form of an attitude. This is an action of a weak leader who lacks any sense of the difference between thinking “I am cause” and thinking, “This is what happened to me.”

Such thinking is injurious to leaders, followers, and to the organization as a whole.

(Claiming a follower has a “good attitude” is the same process – it is still the leader’s opinion projected on the follower as fact without any sense of ownership or accountability.)

Unpacking Resistance

Dictionaries are useful for clarifying meaning. Looking up “resistance” reveals the following that are related to social systems:

Definitions [1]
1. the act or power of resisting, opposing, or withstanding.
2. the opposition offered by one thing, force, etc., to another.
5. ( often initial capital letter ) an underground organization composed of groups of private individuals working as an opposition force in a conquered country to overthrow the occupying power, usually by acts of sabotage, guerrilla warfare, etc.

1. opposition, obstinacy, defiance, intransigence.

The above suggests that resistance is an active choice. It requires one to have given some thought to a situation or issue, to have concluded that it is not in their best interest, and to actively campaign against the situation or issue as a worthy and honorable endeavor. It communicates a hardening of position, the opposition of forces. It seems reasonable to conclude that anyone who is not adopting new ways of thinking and doing must have, in fact, actively made such a conscious decision. It seems reasonable and logical to label the person a resister.

Unpacking Doubt

Labeling someone a resister has a chilling effect on a leader – it removes the possibility of thoughtful and reflective conversation as a means of forward progress. As resisters, followers must simply be overcome. This can happen through brute force or by reliance on consumerism leadership, in which the leader sells the future and seeks buy-in from followers.

What happens if people who exhibit or demonstrate some slowness in adopting new ways of thinking and doing are viewed as having doubts rather than engaging in resistance?

From the dictionary:
Verb (used with object)
1. to be uncertain about; consider questionable or unlikely; hesitate to believe.
2. to distrust.
3. Archaic . to fear; be apprehensive about.
4. to be uncertain about something; be undecided in opinion or belief.
5. a feeling of uncertainty about the truth, reality, or nature of something.
6. distrust.
7. a state of affairs such as to occasion uncertainty.
8. Obsolete . fear; dread.

The above meanings are quite the contrast to those for resistance. They open an entirely new set of possibilities that can be explored by leaders and followers. It frames a conversation of mutual regard, one that holds the deep assumption that some reconciliation of ideas can and ought to be achieved, the opportunity to “move along in thought” in the words of Henry Real Bird, the poet laureate of Montana.

Doubt is something than can be explored as colleagues. Two parties can have the same goals, have doubts, and still work as colleagues in pursuit of reaching those goals. Two parties can have different goals, have doubts, and still work as colleagues to create common ground (where none existed).

Leaders frequently expect commitment from followers without giving followers the latitude to discuss any doubts they might have about the future. This is paradoxical – if there are no doubts, no commitment is required.

Imagine that you have a task for which you have the money, time, people, experience, knowledge, equipment, information, materials, and skills that might be required, all in unlimited supply. Save for remembering to begin, how much commitment is required? None, for a successful outcome is guaranteed.

It is only when any of the above is in short supply that people need commitment to work though obstacles and to deliver a successful outcome. Resources in short supply raise doubt about the outcome, about the future.

Future Possibilities

Peter Block asks, “If we cannot say ‘no’ (which is a form of expressing doubt) then what does ‘yes’ mean?”

Expressing doubt is a way of clarifying role, needs, and expectations in the context of vision and mission. Genuine commitment begins with doubt, and “no” is a symbolic expression of people finding their space and role in the strategy. It is when leaders fully understand what followers do not want that they can fully design what they want. The option to say no and pass is the foundation for commitment.

Expressing doubt is not about hijacking the future. Nor is it done in the expectation of guarantees that followers (and leaders themselves for that matter) will receive exactly what they want. Expressing doubt is a deep expression of integrity and honesty, and a gift to leaders and followers alike. The leadership task, writes Block, is to surface doubts and dissent without having an answer to every question.

Block poses some questions to assist leaders in surfacing and exploring doubt. These questions are considered by leaders and followers alike.

  • What concerns about the future do you want to talk about?
  • What is the “no” that you have been postponing that impacts your choice of the past or the future
  • What is the “yes” that has lost its meaning that impacts your choice of the past or the future?
  • What is the forgiveness that you have been withholding that may stand in the way of choosing the future?
  • What is the resentment that you have that no one knows about that impacts your choice for the future?

How would change in organizations be different if leaders inquired into the doubts people have about the future rather than cast them as enemies of the future? What conversations would be created? What conversations would cease?

[1] (From Dictionary.com Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2011.)

Post-script, 2011.10.05: I just came across the following from my colleague Tim Soden, who I consider to be a wise person. “I believe that if I use a label to assert that someone is resisting me I am sabotaging myself by limiting my personal abilities after all ‘what we resists persists’.”

Is It Possible To Unthink?

In a conversation with colleagues recently we were talking about thinking. We are in the process of doing some writing on a topic that is, we think, an uncommon way to understand how change takes place in organizations. It has the potential to be a leapfrog or breakthrough theory of leading and managing the strategic and tactical process of organizations moving into the future they want.

One of us expressed the desire to know more about how people in the field are thinking about organizational change at present. When I inquired about how such information would be used, he expressed the desire to make a connection to current thinking as leverage for engaging people in reading and thinking about a breakthrough way of thinking.

I experienced a feeling and a thought. The feeling was a bit of unease. This feeling always signals to me that something inside of me has yet to be unpacked, or that my personality (which favors things be exactly the way they should be) was asserting itself in an unhealthy way. The thought was, the more time we spend thinking about the present, the more it will influence our thinking about our breakthrough theory. And that drew me to the question, can we ever unthink what we know?

On Breakthrough, Leapfrog Thinking

I told my colleagues that I was interested in spending every bit of my time, energy, and thinking on that uncommon, breakthrough, leapfrog future, and had no interest in doing any thinking about the present for three reasons. One, simple math says that if we hope to produce this breakthrough thinking by some certain date, total available time is a constant, and the greater the fraction we spend on the present, the lesser the fraction we spend on the future. Two, I opined that every time we made any rigorous inquiry into the present we would be diluting the possibility of achieving breakthrough future thinking. Three, the more we think about the present, the more we anchor the present in our brains. All the energy that goes into thinking about the present becomes a tether to the present (which quickly becomes the past).

So, is it possible to unthink what we have already thought to clear our thinking for the future?

It strikes me that the question can be answered in (at least) two parts. The first is a brain-based answer and the second is a “thinking as a process” answer.

Is It Possible to Unthink: A Brain-Based Answer

Thinking, for me, falls into two large buckets. The first is thinking about what we already know. This is “sitting in a dark room with the thoughts I already have piecing them together in possibly new ways or at least going over them in some order”. The second is thinking that is a response to learning or discovery. This is when what we did not know becomes known. That does not mean it is entirely new knowledge; it may be an expansion of what we know or a new perspective on what we know. Nevertheless, it is some addition to what we already knew.

(I am neither a neurologist nor a neuroscientist. For now, I will rely on my understanding of the work of Lila Davachi, PhD of New York University and her research on memory. What follows is an extremely brief summation of how memory works (so brief that it is sure to have gaping holes but should suffice for the purpose of this article) and is limited to encoding memories, the role of the hippocampus, and generating (retrieving) memories.)

The brain records what we learn as memories. Long-term memories are encoded into the brain and from that moment forward sit around waiting to be retrieved (which, depending on the circumstances of their encoding, could be a lonely life). In between we retain them to various degrees.

Memory encoding is enhanced by several things: paying attention, working with information, organizing and generating information, distribution of practice (intervals of repetition), and context. In general, the greater the activation of the hippocampus, the more successful the memory formation. In general, the greater the emotion connected to an event, the greater the activation of the hippocampus. Memory retrieval actually plays a role in strengthening existing memory (by rewriting the memory in the brain). So, taken as a whole, the more you work with what you already know, the more the memory is strengthened.

All of this, it strikes me, suggests that the time we spend in animated thinking about what we already know (or expanding what we already know) has an inverse effect on encoding new memories that will be the stuff of breakthrough ideas for the future. So, in terms of leapfrogging into the future, the brain can be your friend at the same time it is your enemy. While retention of memory can fade with inattention and lack of retrieval, the physical brain cannot unthink what we already know (i.e., memories already encoded).

Is It Possible To Unthink: A Thinking as a Process Answer

Retention, then, may be a lever for unthinking insofar as the ability to retrieve a memory decreases as the time between retrievals of a memory increases. The brain is decently efficient in that regard. Davachi notes that as the time between attempts to retrieve a memory increase, the more the brain is inclined to send the memory to the “no need to keep this one on hand” bucket, giving the impression that the memory no longer exists.

What might favor such a “loss of memory”? Exciting the hippocampus and generating powerful new memories that create deep grooves in the brain will in time command more of the brain’s attention than memories that receive decreasing attention. Holding on to those new memories through frequent and emotional retrieval can create what Jeffrey Schwartz and Henry Stapp describe as “attention density”. And what favors such new powerful new memories? Conversations that draw our attention to future possibilities through powerful questions that create a deep shift in the way the brain works to answer the questions.

Powerful questions have three attributes. They are personal, ambiguous, and anxiety provoking. (See the article on Powerful Questions for more on this.) Taken together they make it difficult for the brain to quickly download easily accessible memories and serve them up as quick answers to the questions. Powerful questions make us pause and think again for the first time.

If the heart of the question says that problem solving the past is not on the table as a viable topic, what is left but to begin a deeper inquiry into the “Why?” of things, and in so doing discover the non-obvious and the uncommon. If the heart of the question rules out a better understanding of current ways of thinking around organizational change, what is left but to shift to ask “What if?”. Such is the stuff of breakthrough thinking and leapfrogging into the future.

Future Possibilities

It is neurophysiologically naive of course to think that even powerful questions and engaging conversations do not draw on already formed memories. The brain is quick to call a bluff. Through powerful questions we can access those memories as springboards for imagining how current mental models might give way to future possibilities – uncommon insights into new ways of understanding change in organizations. Such is the stuff of newly formed memories that combined with chosen accountability and ownership may open way into futures different from the past.

So, is it possible to unthink what we already know? The answer is mixed. The brain may say “yes” or it may say “request denied”. But as a matter of intention we can always choose to focus on breakthrough thinking and leapfrogging. As a matter of choice we can put our attention on that intention. We are continuously rewriting our memories based on what we give our attention to. And we always give our attention to our intentions, whether those intentions are actively articulated or passively allowed to frame our actions.

Choice 1 (Lack)

It has become more American to consume than to think.

With it has come consumerism leadership and the ubiquitous practice of getting buy-in from followers. How ought we understand and put into perspective a mindset of leadership based on consumerism?


Marketing and advertising fuel consumerism. Sellers rely on stories designed to tickle the brain to light up with pleasure, either real, perceived, or expected.

Sellers frequently claim they seek a win-win relationship. A critical assessment of the claim must address the issue of which party defines winning. It is always the seller, never the buyer. Sellers have to close the sale to win, otherwise they lose. Sellers do not receive rewards for sales not made. The definition of win-win can only be understood through the lens of how the seller must win, not through the lens of how the buyer might win.

Selling is not, inherently, a transparent process. It requires a story favorable to the seller. Can you think of an advertisement or sales pitch that encouraged you to carefully consider whether the purchase was really necessary? Have you ever been pointed to a competitor’s product with the hint that it might be better for you?

The Mindset of the Leader as Seller

The overarching mindset of the seller is closing the deal; it is the only way the seller can keep her/his job. A seller’s patience and skill does not change that mindset.

This is likewise true for the consumerism leader. Selling to followers requires a basic indifference to their desires and needs. A key element of selling, no matter how artfully practiced using psychology and brain research, is overcoming objections. There is one and only one goal – make the sale. Helping others has little or nothing to do with selling, despite claims to the contrary. You can test this the next time you are the target of a sales pitch – say to the seller, “My needs and desires would be better met by passing on this offer, thank you” and observe the response.


It has become patriotic to make one’s contribution to the well-being of others by over-spending as much as possible. We’ve been conditioned to respond to advertising and to behave as responsible consumers. Effective messages convince the soul and the mind that it is possible, and desirable, to reward oneself and contribute to the nation by transacting one simple purchase. By extension, followers are encouraged to believe that they are likewise contributing to the best interests of the organization when they buy-in.

The Mindset of the Follower as Buyer

People know when they are being sold. Followers can discern that in a leader, it often being easier to do so in the workplace. The reliance on overcoming objections as the default position of leaders as sellers alert followers they are target of buy-in efforts.

Once consumerism leadership has been established, and leaders expect to gain buy-in from people, it should come as no surprise when followers behave like consumers. What, generally speaking, is typically on a consumer’s mind?

  • What’s for sale?
  • What is the exchange value?
  • What if I want another sales person (leader)?
  • I expect a bigger discount.
  • I want it in yellow.
  • I’ll wait for the end of year sale.
  • Do you barter?
  • Do you accept coupons?
  • I left because I got a better deal elsewhere.

The follower in the workplace brings the same flavor of questions to consumerism leaders.

If the buyer has no choice in the sales process (if the seller is your boss, walking away from the deal is a risky option) s/he tends to develop passive approaches to turning down the sale. There are many: saying yes but meaning no; and unending stream of questions; repeated mistakes while expressing deep frustration and the desire to do better; public words of encouragement combined with private acts of sabotage.

Consumerism leadership sets up the employee buyer as the most important person. Where does that leave the organization’s real customers?

In organizations, oddly enough, the consumer mentality takes a strange twist. Normally the consumer receives something in the exchange, giving up money for some product, tangible or intangible. In organizations followers are often called upon to give something up in the process of buying in. It should come as no surprise that consumerism leadership risks encouraging weak and insincere followers.

The Effects of Consumerism Leadership in the Workplace

More than anything, consumerism leadership dulls the minds of followers. It anchors compliance in the minds of followers, and rarely, if ever, touches people in a way that sparks commitment.

The consumer mentality is such that buyers assume a passive position and simply wait to sift through the barrage of offers that endlessly swirl around them. Buyers are accustomed to tuning out the chatter that holds no interest, quickly assessing offers in terms of its personal value to them, and being manipulated.

Knowing one is being manipulated and agreeing to be swayed by the manipulation is not a contradiction. Being aware of manipulation and making a decision from within that awareness is proof to ourselves that we can, and do, engage in rational decision making.

The worst effect that consumerism leadership has in the workplace is the deepening belief that all important thinking belongs to leaders, and nothing of real importance is required from followers. Think about the looping cycle this creates – consumerism leadership breeds passive followership and lazy minds which in turn reinforces leaders’ belief that followers must be manipulated through sales pitches into going along with the thinking of the leaders (who are the only ones capable of the thinking required).

Future Possibilities

Why do leaders resort to making sales pitches to the people who rely on their leadership? Is there an alternative? If so, what is it? If consumerism leadership holds that people are unable and/or unwilling to think for themselves and make their own informed decisions, what does the assumption that followers can and want to engage look like? What form does leadership based on treating followers as capable, autonomous thinkers take? What is choice leadership? What is choice followership?