One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts two excited executives sitting in a meeting. One says to the other, “Let’s keep things here exactly the way they are.” The other responds, “Yeah, let’s not change anything!”

Many of us want to change our organizations so they are collaborative and innovative, with a focus more on customers than on internal politics. Yet leading change can feel like pushing a boulder uphill as people cling to the familiar ways of the past, while nodding in agreement that things need to change.

Resistance is a word often heard in relation to organizational change. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “people resist change.” But if that were true, would anyone move to a new neighborhood, take a new job, have a baby!? A corrective statement: people don’t resist change; they resist being changed…

Why? When change is imposed it stirs up anxiety, making us feel a little insecure. Even something innocuous as a new email system requires people to become temporarily incompetent as they learn to use it. This generates self-doubt and fear of looking bad, which are natural when we are confronted with something unfamiliar. Unfortunately, leaders often interpret this anxiety as opposition, and then label people who behave contrary to their wishes as resistant.

When we label people “resistant,” we tend to judge them as stubborn, not a team player, dead wood, or even worse. And when we judge them that way, it is easy to exclude, go around, or pressure them to implement our ideas. Of course, people who feel pressured or left out do not enjoy the lack of respect, so they react against it. Thus, leaders create the very opposition that wasn’t there in the first place – a perfect self-fulfilling prophesy!

A more insidious technique many leaders use is to “gain buy-in” by asking for input on new processes and procedures, despite the fact the direction has already been decided. When this happens, people see through it, resulting in only more cynicism, mistrust, and yes, opposition…

Resist Resistance

Amy, the manager of customer service for a health care products distribution company, needed to implement handheld computer technology for inventory to reduce process time and errors. Amy’s firm was losing customers, and decided to implement a similar system implemented by their top competitor.

Yet Amy’s employees didn’t shift; they continued using their paper-and-pencil methods and the phone to order inventory, claiming the computer-based system was flawed and even slower.

At first Amy tried to sell her people on the benefits of the new technology. But she became increasingly frustrated by their intransigence, and she pushed them even harder. This led to turnover of some good people, and even lower productivity.

With the help of an executive coach, Amy realized that her people weren’t resisting the new system, but were trying to hold on to what the old system provided; namely, the feelings of self worth and mastery that came with performing a job well.

Amy changed her approach. She focused on ways to help her people preserve their feelings of confidence and self-esteem while they shifted to the new methodology.

Specifically, she had them continue to use paper and pencil methods in parallel to the hand-held computer system for a while, so they could feel good about their work while they learned the new process. She also stopped relying on the outside vendor to train her people, and only permitted her own people to act as trainers (after all, she thought, internal trainers who learned the system would be less threatening). Finally, she made it clear that phasing in the new model was non-negotiable, and she set a deadline.

These three shifts did the trick, and the new technology was soon embraced (staff even joked about the BC age – before computers).

But only by changing her own concept of resistance was Amy able to lead effectively. Rather than seeing people as opposing her objective, she began to understand the benefits for people to hold on to something they valued while they try something new. This shift in mindset helped Amy see new options as a leader, and she started to apply the same concept to other changes she wanted to make.

Mindset and language are intimately connected to each other. By discarding the language of resistance, we can open our minds toward a deeper understanding of the underlying change process. And in doing so, open ourselves to what we want in the first place – an engaged, committed workforce collaborating to lead change effectively.