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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Change and resistance

Resistance, whether it be due to implementing strategic changes, to the introduction of a new product line, or to a different way of doing things, is too often perceived as a negative force. Resistance is viewed as being opposition, as unnecessarily slowing down the pace of things, as people thwarting necessary changes, and as employees being unengaged, unmotivated, unwilling, and incapable. These are harsh and, in many (not all) cases, unjust judgments.
Resistance is a concept we find in many fields: biology, science, architecture, electronics and psychotherapy. The word ‘resistance’ has different meanings, of which I want to point out the following four:
1.     Resistance is protest or opposition that takes courage and strength – sticking out your head and venting your real thoughts, concerns, and feelings while facing a change that is being forced upon you, or so it feels. Often, however, this opposition is worded in a way that its courage, strength, and positive intentions are disguised in negative attitudes and responses thereby losing touch with the real concerns the person has.
2.     Resistance implies protection against real or perceived threat to body (e.g. extreme temperatures), mind (e.g. bullying), work (e.g. loss of job, status etc.), family (e.g. divorce), health (e.g. illness).
3.     In biology and medicine, resistance equals defense against threats like infections, viruses, and bacteria. We build defense mechanisms against pain and illnesses.
4.     Resistance is inherent to the therapeutic process. It has many different faces, healthy and less healthy, but even the unhealthy ones, often shown as stagnation, serve as an important warning sign rather than a nuisance to be nipped in the bud.
Resistance is often labeled as annoying, bad, not wanting to cooperate and more negative connotations, and, truth be told, at face value it can be all of the above which makes it difficult to redefine resistance and to convert it into positive energy. However, drawing from principles of the Gestalt Psychology and from my twenty years of experience in developing human and organizational potential, I am convinced that people resisting change and their ‘resistant’ behavior represent healthy self-regulation or at least a protective reaction to real, potential, or perceived damage to their integrity.  Resistance is an attempt to preserve the system (personal or at an organizational level). All resistance is mobilization of energy, not a lack of energy, and it can provide valuable information about the system, about the proposed changes, and about the person. I turn all this into strategies and tactics for working with the resistance, gaining additional insights and knowledge as opposed to trying to overcome, smother, or annihilate the resistance.
This essay is not about how to deal with resistance which might be one of my next topics. This writing provides you with an alternative vision on resistance in addition to the first-hand examples many of us are so familiar with: resistance being vented in a non-productive manner where someone withdraws, retreats in a bunker, or launches a massive attack rather than securing himself by closing the door. Resistance can be expressed in as many ways as you can chose how to handle it. Looking with different, more constructive eyes can aid you in understanding the underlying dynamics, beliefs, opinions, principles, habits, generalizations, preconceived notions, and (real or perceived) threats to the person or group. It can help you to distinguish between true concerns vented in a clumsy manner or opposition for the sake of opposition.


  1. thanks Carolien for highlighting resistance as something that can be strong and positive rather than wrought with negativity. For some, resistance is a statement for survival on one's own terms, and is an adherence to values in the face of others who may negate them....Liz

  2. So true Liz - survival takes on many faces. And as with anything, it's the dynamics and goal underneath the actions and behaviors that we should focus on, not just what shows on the surface. Tx for your perspective, Carolien