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’.”


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?

Choice 2 (Abundance)

If buy-in is the calling card of consumerism leadership, how do leaders who seek to elicit ownership and accountability in followers engage them without manipulation? One possible way is choice leadership.

Choice is the ultimate acknowledgment of autonomy. The very act of giving someone a choice (that is, a true choice, which includes the right to say no and pass; if you cannot say no, then what does yes mean?) is to place that person in a place of doing their own thinking. It sets the table for ownership and accountability. It elevates their status, and deepens the relatedness between leaders and followers. It creates a near future with a higher degree of certainty, and it tempers the power differential with fairness.

These five elements – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness – described by David Rock in his article “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others” in the NeuroLeadership Journal (Issue One, 2008) create a foundation for leaders who elect to lead through engaging people at the level of their own deepest desires.

What Would You Buy If You Were Selling To Yourself?

Try this exercise. At the top of a piece of paper write, “This is the deal”. Assume that you have agreed ahead of time to buy what ever you write down. What will you write?

Think about the dynamics of the question. It is near impossible to think about the question as only the seller or only the buyer. Something shifts; a mutual consideration takes over and you realize that from the seller’s perspective you have a choice in what you offer and from the buyer’s perspective you have a choice in what you purchase.

The question invites you to align the interests of the buyer and the seller. The seller makes an honorable offer and the buyer gives it thoughtful consideration. You realize that you are neither selling nor buying, but that you are now engaged in a deep conversation on crafting an exchange that serves the values and interests of both parties.

Choice does not require the leader to abdicate her/his leadership. On the contrary, it opens way for the leader to invite followers into some heavy lifting, to engage in charting their own path forward, to assuming ownership and accountability for the future they want.

Choice likewise does not throw the entire enterprise open to the whims of the followers. All choices can, and should, be available within the context of vision, mission, values, strategy, constraints, customer needs, hopes, and expectations, and the requirements of stakeholders.

Choose, Choose, Choose!

Choice leadership generates possibilities exponentially. No longer is thinking the sole bailiwick of the leader. Not only can followers engage, but they must, not as a response to a mandate, but because they see their own best interests in their own hands.

Time is now spent sifting through the best choice – the one that is the best fit for vision, mission, values, strategy, constraints, customer needs, hopes, and expectations, and the requirements of stakeholders.

The looping cycle becomes leaders finding resources and bringing information to followers who engage with leaders to make choices that further refine the focus of leadership and generate more choices.

The Mindset of Choice Leaders and Followers

The deep, enduring effect of choice leadership is removing change by mandate from the organizational mindset and replacing it with an invitation to followers to own the future, and to be accountable for it. There is a deep divide between a leader using her/his authority or power to mandate a requirement and hold followers accountable (if the mandate was such a good idea and it was the leader’s choice, shouldn’t the leader be held accountable?) and a leader that frames conversations that lead followers to acknowledge their own stake in creating the present they want to change, and which leverage that ownership of the present into ownership of the future. People who claim not to own the present are very unlikely to suddenly start owning the future when it becomes present.

Choice deepens when followers feel the confidence that they can express doubts about their ownership and accountability. Commitment to choices is not necessary if all of the money, people, equipment, knowledge, experience, information, technology and time is available in endless supply. Short of remembering to start, no commitment is required because the outcome is guaranteed.

It is only when resources are in short supply that any commitment is needed. There are obstacles to overcome and constraints to navigate. People have to stretch, time has to contract, risks have to be taken. Imperfect information is the best available and what people don’t know they don’t know can sink the desired or needed outcome. Such is the stuff of doubt.

When people can express doubts they gain the support of their colleagues and find the courage and resolve to open way forward. Doubt is the acknowledgment that the commitment to reach goals is an emotional one as well as a factual one.

Finally, choice leadership and followership is one in which the gifts that people bring are honored and celebrated. People at the margins are brought into the center. The dictum to respect others is paired with the expectation to be respected.

Acknowledging gifts does not mean that gaps are naively ignored. It does mean that leaders endeavor to find the best fit for people’s gifts across the entire enterprise rather than judge the follower only in the context of the current job s/he occupies. The quest for best fit does not rule out followers leaving the organization, either through their own choice, the choice of leaders, or by mutual choice.

Future Possibilities

Are there limits to choice? Answered concretely, the answer is likely “yes”. But allowed to slip the fear of loss of control, how might leaders continue to leverage the power of inviting followers to choose and to serve as their allies and guides? What is the synergy that can emerge? What are the levels of engagement that can be realized? What are the possibilities of aiming high and pressing hard? Can the workplace be a place where leaders inspire followers who in turn inspire leaders? How can a soft idea translate into the concrete reality of producing goods and services in hyper competitive market places? How can choice reduce expenses and increase revenues?

The possibilities begin with the assumption that they are possible, at least for the purpose of inviting followers to exercise their choice and think about them.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Readers of Peter Block will recognize fragments of his thinking in this article. Thank you, Peter, for the inspiration.