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’.”