Koan #14: Overcoming Resistance

We usually send the situation in one newsletter and results in a following newsletter. Here the situations and results are copied verbatim into one post. Hence, when it says 'you' - it means the subscribers who voted in newsletter, not readers of this archive.
This situation was published in the 04 May 2021 newsletter.


You have inherited a small team that was demotivated under the previous manager. Improving the morale for an upcoming creative project will require changing some of the team’s processes and habits. While these changes sound obvious to you, you know there will be strong resistance: one or more people who will say it’s too risky, won’t work or it’s out of their comfort zone. You want to ensure your changes have a chance of success. What would you do?

Option A - Invite only the people who you think will agree with the change, and announce the decision to everyone afterwards. Go ahead with the change, and assume that by changing the process eventually people will see its merits.

Option B - Invite only the people who you think will resist, and explain why the change is good. Announce the decision to everyone afterwards, and assume that by changing the process eventually people will see its merits.

Option C - Find out from your manager why they think the team is resistant to change and gear your proposal in this direction. Explain and implement the change and plan an evaluation meeting after a couple of weeks to work on any teething problems.

Option D - Present the proposal, then give the team a forum for expressing their concerns or fears about what’s changing. Listen and reflect on what you’ve learned from them, helping them feel heard, and explain why the changes will benefit the team and the company. Explain the behaviours that fit the team and those that don’t and ask them to align.


Affecting a change is one of the most challenging skills to master and execute efficiently. On one side, it is possible to use authority and batter through any resistance, but the team may well get demotivated or even leave. On the other hand, it is possible to seek absolute consensus, but this may drag on a discussion, and the result will probably not be what was intended. Furthermore, we may not be the original authors of the change or fully agree with it, but as the leaders closest to where the rubber meets the road, we have to do it. Therefore, a good leader must find a balance and use subtle “Jedi mind tricks” to persuade the team into a change.

It is worth acknowledging that resistance to change should always be expected, and on its own is neither good nor bad. It is the reasons behind the resistance that can be flawed and need adjusting. And before adjusting, we need to prepare for them. The most common sources of resistance to consider are:

  • What are the currently entrenched practices?
  • Who created these practices?
  • Who has been rewarded the most by them?
  • Who will have to do more work because of the change?
  • Who advocated an alternative?

Options A and B from last week try to narrow down the source of support or resistance and use it to explain and execute the change. Just explaining the change will not remove the opposition and could further alienate the team. Therefore, it is also essential to address some of the most common reasons behind the resistance. According to one study, the primary reasons to resist are:

  • Lack of awareness of why the change is being made
  • Impact on the current job role
  • The Organisation’s past performance with change
  • Lack of visible support or commitment from managers
  • Fear of job loss

Asking senior leaders or longer-tenured peers for potential reasons, as in Option C, can make the above list more specific. Though it still warrants preparation before going into the meeting.

Presenting the change to the team and pre-emptively addressing the resistance points in the meeting is not the final step. There may still be contention points brought up that were not considered. The stakes are higher, too, because addressing them during the meeting requires thinking on your feet. Here are a couple of tactics, or “Jedi mind tricks”, that can help facilitate the consensus.

First, don’t try to do all the persuasion yourself, especially if someone in the team already supports the change. Gently facilitate the group, e.g., “Help us understand why you think this won’t work? Then maybe someone else can explain why they think it will.”

Second, engage the person resisting by asking them to find a compromise, e.g., “I can tell you have strong opinions about this, and that’s great. What other alternatives do you have in mind? How would you adapt this idea to make it work?”

Third, if a completely unexpected reason came up, don’t jump on resolving it immediately, but ask for more specifics. “Can you share more specifics about your concern or help us understand what we may have missed?”Fourth, if there are a couple of ideas for resolving the issue, ask the team to decide. “What seems the most workable?”

Fifth, use your authority to either shut down negative comments or request for them to be rephrased positively. Negative or off-handed comments can quickly freeze any problem-solving and derail a productive conversation. Therefore a skill to move the whole team swiftly past them is crucial. A couple of phrases that can help out: “I appreciate that you’re not afraid to say what’s on your mind. For now, though, we need to move on.”, or “I understand what you are saying, but could you phrase it in a way that focuses on the positive side?”

Whilst the above is a summary of various articles, books, and surveys, there are established change management frameworks too, and they are worth looking into. One of our subscribers mentioned one such framework - Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model.

Finally, none of these tactics will be successful all the time, and the reasons may be beyond our control. As one of our subscribers commented: “Personally, in the past, I think I have tried all of these options in trying to engage a demotivated team, and in particular one person, and none were a complete success. Sometimes there are unknown external factors affecting people’s attitude to change.”