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  • Writer's pictureTony Richards

Encountering People Resistance

One of the more common things people encounter when they accept or step into a leadership role is resistance. It’s really not more common in leadership scenarios than any other situation; it’s just a bit more evident. Leaders, by their very nature, are change agents; they are always questioning and battling the status-quo. Generally, people fear anything they don’t quite understand or which they are not certain of the eventual effects on themselves. There is an overwhelming urge that exists to keep things the same, even though it’s an impossible task. One thing is for certain, nothing stays the same.

Every living, breathing person exhibits resistance, an attempt to maintain control or retain some aspect of power. There are various triggers for this, the aforementioned lack of understanding, fear of being wrong, fear of making a mistake, fear of undesired outcomes, too much belief in the way things should or shouldn’t be versus the way things are likely to be or even the way things actually are. Resistance happens in leadership roles, in marriage roles, in friendship roles, on committees, on boards, in relationships and in individuals. Sometimes, we are actually resisting ourselves gong in a direction we know we should be going in.

Many times, the warning signal for resistance is in our emotions. Anger is a flashing signal in our emotional makeup that is often followed by some type of resistance. Think about a married couple who has perhaps wrapped up an evening together which unfortunately featured a very interesting, but heated, difference of opinion that never reached compromise. He goes to his side of the bed and she goes to hers. He turns toward his wall and she does the same without even a “good night” or weak “love you”. This is resistance in action. Neither one wants to relent, but struggle to win or maintain control.

There are multitudes of ways in which we use resistance. Here are a few you will likely encounter either in an organizational setting or relationship situation.

1. Arriving late

Yes, there are chronic time mis-managers, who just can’t ever seem to get anywhere at the appointed time. Believe it not, however, there are situations in which people use late arrival as a control mechanism, and this is a way to exercise their power or to try and maintain some control. All leaders who are on top of their game never wait on late attendees if it’s a group meeting. Don’t penalize those who are there and ready because of someone who is not. As a new organizational leader, to set the culture from the start, I have at times locked the door of meeting rooms once the meetings have started, excluding those who could not or would not get there at the appointed time. It always sent a clear message about the importance of being there at the starting time.

2. Continually asking questions but never doing anything constructive or positive with the answers

This is another form of resistance or trying to maintain control. Sometimes I call this “trying to stump the chump”, in which a person will continually keep asking questions as a power maneuver until they finally ask some question the leader doesn’t have the answer for. This can be frustrating as they completely ignore the answers from their previous questions. Sometimes, people will continually ask the same question over and over in different ways as a power move, much like a lawyer in a court room. If a simple conversation feels like a deposition, you should probably end it.

3. Trying to get clarity on insignificant or obscure issues

This is the behavior of resistance displayed when someone keeps bringing up something which has no real bearing on anything important. Sometimes, this is just covering their lack of understanding of the real objectives, and divert the attention to something important which has been overlooked, because after all, I’m bringing it up.

4. Asking for more information when they are doing nothing with information they already have

You’ve seen this. We need more research, we need more facts, we need more data. In reality, they are not moving forward with any of the previously supplied information, it’s merely a stall tactic to avoid commitment or agreement, very similar to number 2 on the list with slight variation.

5. Silence

Some people will use this to project their presence in a meeting or interaction, hoping to produce intimidation, fear or mystique. This resistance is simply to get the leader distracted, or to cause attention to be drawn to themselves by hoping to get others in the meeting to flip their focus to them by wondering what they are thinking or why they are silent. When asked, they usually respond with “I’m just listening” in quite the skeptical tone.

These are simply five of the many ways people can use resistance. Unfortunately, resistance is very damaging and non-profitable for anyone. Most of all, it damages the person who facilitates it, since anger, stress and pressure turned inward, rather than released is simply not healthy, physically or emotionally. All leaders (and people, if you don’t consider yourself a leader) seeking to grow can commit themselves to discovering strategies to stay out of resistance and helping their people avoid it as well. Remember, people do not fear change as much as they fear the unknown, when you encounter resistance, seek ways to counter it in methods which increase comfort and understanding.

Resistance does not solve anything, it prolongs it. The more you resist, the more it will persist.

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