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Harness energy for change and use resistance as rocket fuel

As part of our experience in organisational change over the last 20 years, we have developed seven WDI change principles which align our approach.  These principles underpin our consulting practice and inform how we coach individuals to effectively lead change.

One of the principles that gets a lot of attention and causes some good controversy is to proactively work with the resistance to change, that change makers undoubtedly face.

Often, beneath the surface of inclusive leadership narratives on change, it is common for dissenters to be excluded, ignored or avoided in the change process.  This can lead to subsequent problems in the implementation of change, because not everyone’s voice has been considered.  Yet often the resistance that is being faced is a natural part or our response to change.  For instance, our inertia to change could be because doing what we know can seem easier, or a fear or distrust of new processes or ways of behaving because they feel unknown or foreign.

Shifting your perspective on resistance

What if the resistance that arises in change is an indicator of engagement and that people are grappling with some of the important issues concerning a change?  Perhaps resistance, dissent, disagreement and even obstruction is not something to be squashed, but something to be valued, listened to and engaged with?

How we at WDI choose to see resistance is as an indicator that people care (just not currently in the direction you want them to take).

With this small shift from ‘resistance as barrier’ to ‘resistance as caring’, we can move away from the polarised ‘them’ and ‘us’ narratives, entrenched positions and side-taking.  This frees up leaders and their teams to ask constructive questions towards creating a better experience and outcome for everyone.

As Margaret Heffernan shares in her TED Talk, Dare to Disagree; “When we create conflict we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking”, if we can maintain our openness and courage to have frank, yet respectful, conversations.

Case study example

Creating change in gender balance

When working with one organisation, we gathered data and insights on female employees experience across the organisation.  We created a ‘living report’, an immersion in the data, insights and findings which we shared with different groups.  This involved an audio reel of actresses speaking in ways that transmitted the passion and emotions of the woman interviewed.  We then created a series of psychologically safe workshops, where participants engaged with and explored the insights and next steps.  These workshops were held in all female groups, all male groups later, when safety and understanding had grown, then mixed level and gender groups.

By the time we reached the ‘all company’ meeting and proposals for policy changes, we had openly invited in the resistance that we knew was under the surface, and through facilitated dialogue, transformed and dissolved much of it.

Resulting in an organisation coming together around some key issues and having frank conversations about what was getting in the way of, for instance flex-working policies being used, or the impact of unconscious bias.

We created real conversations about opinions and experiences that had previously been taboo, or marginalised.  We built a new social norm for how to talk openly about these topics and built the trust and safety for those conversations to unfold.  Having real dialogue and ‘how’ you involve others in the change process, is the key to making resistance rocket fuel as it deepens trust, ownership and understanding for all.

Other examples of how you can use Resistance as Rocket fuel

  • Invite in dissenting voices from the beginning, listen to concerns and underlying needs
  • Encourage debate through frank and open discussion whilst paying particular attention to power dynamics
  • Resource, celebrate and establish networks of your pioneers (e.g. advocates, allies and early adopters) communicate widely and celebrate what they are doing
  • Tell stories about successes, systematically share practices that are promoting the change you want.

How do you use resistance as rocket fuel in a time of remote working?

When you are working remotely, you can miss the social cues you would normally get in person.  Perhaps resistance gets toned down or goes silent, yet you are not getting the response you want on email?  Perhaps you are experiencing friendly connection, but a barrage of process problems that you expect, with the will, could be solved quickly?

In a remote working context, you need to be even more aware of the indicators and signs you are getting around engagement.  It can be easier to make the assumption that everyone thinks like you when the evidence to the contrary is less available.

In our upcoming talk at the Women in Finance online festival, we are discussing this topic with Tricia Halpin, Chief People Officer and Sabahe Mrizag Director of Business Intelligence and Data from Masthaven Bank.

In the talk: ‘Leading change: How to be politically savvy and use resistance as rocket fuel’, we are sharing our experiences from the last year of working with Masthaven Bank Limited on developing their female talent through our women’s leadership programme.

In preparation for our talk, I asked Tricia and Sabahe what their advice was for being an effective change agent when working in remote teams, they shared:

“Never under-estimate the time you need to devote to connecting with others and hearing their point of view.  Make sure you avoid the trap of doing too much over email, and make the time for real conversations with people, including those stakeholders who might disagree with you.  Connection takes time and energy, but the rewards are great.”  Tricia Halpin

“You’ve got to take the journey with people, help people understand how it makes their job easier, the benefits of doing things differently.  It’s really important to step back and think about other people’s needs and then adapt.” Sabahe Mrizag

In summary

There is huge value in inviting in dissenting voices, getting curious about what’s underneath the resistance you encounter.  We encourage you to check the urge to label dissenters as ‘difficult’, thus pushing people away.  Instead, hold the possibility that drawing in those who think differently may get things unstuck more quickly and allow you to innovate faster and better.

We also know that working with resistance positively is an art, sort of like a great tai chi master who knows how to move gracefully with whatever force might be coming towards them!

Therefore, we encourage you to resource yourself well, reach out to allies, look for resources on facilitating ‘good controversy’ well (Priya Parker’s book ‘The art of gathering – How we meet and why it matters’ is a great resource exploring meaningful group connections).

We believe that being an effective change agent is an essential part of inclusive leadership which is why we include these skills in our women’s leadership programme, one-to-one coaching, and throughout our consulting practice.

If this article resonates with you and you would like to explore our approach, discuss how we can support you and your organisations in your change journey, please do contact us.


Clare Russell
WDI Consulting Limited

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