Recognizing Resistance: A Personal Perspective

© 1997 Johanna Rothman.


Resistance, especially to process improvement, can take many forms and levels of intensity. Process improvement, the activities of changing how people work, can appear (and can be) very threatening to people. For some of us, it is difficult to see the resistance at first. We may think that people misunderstood us, or did what they thought was requested. Sometimes, considering resistance is the last thought.

For me, this is because I believe people want to do a good job, and do their absolute best to do a good job. I need to reconcile my beliefs and perceptions with the realities that sometimes people can't or don't change, to perform in the most optimal way. After all, the goal is to produce the product under development.

Obvious forms of resistance in others

I've worked in technical and managerial lead positions for a number of years, and have encountered these obvious forms of resistance:

  • Refusal to perform a task
  • Refusal to plan a task
  • Refusal to consider alternatives

These forms of resistance are relatively easy to deal with, depending on how the person reacts to different types of persuasion. I've had positive results with these efforts, depending on the individual, and my role:

  1. Logic: show them the logic of the suggestion
  2. Try it “just once” to see results
  3. Appeal to one's professionalism
  4. Request/Demand a result which can be most easily done with the suggestion on the table
  5. Shame and guilt

Less Obvious forms of resistance in others

The situations that are most difficult for me to understand and deal with are those where the resistance is indirect. For example:

  • Failure to complete a task
  • Misleading or incomplete information, given in a way that leads you to believe the information is complete
  • Repeated instances of not quite obtaining promised results

It is less clear how to determine whether or not resistance is at work when people agree to perform a specific task, but fail to complete it. Do the people have the competencies? Are they lazy, or do they need help managing time? Is it my responsibility to teach or mentor them, or are they somehow determined not to do the thing I want them to do? And, if they appear to deliberately not perform, is that a mirroring action?

There are times when I appear to resist the people with whom I work. They respond by not doing the things I request of them. This mirroring of resistance, from at least one side's perspective, can escalate, unless you recognize it, and bring it to a head.

I am challenged by recognizing resistance in these less obvious situations and learning to make resistance visible to all parties.

My resistance

Since I'm only human, I also show different forms of resistance. But, I'm even more dangerous than the people I assume are resisting, because my resistance is extremely subtle. I tend to push back the ideas on the people suggesting them- I need to make them prove their ideas can work in a noncritical situation. To counteract this, I've developed some signals to the people I work with, and especially for myself:

  1. “Fly that by me one more time” means I think the idea is completely off the wall.
  2. “Talk me through how this can work, and let's see how to make it successful” means I think there is no way to make this work
  3. “How do we try this without endangering the schedule?” means I think there's is no way to do this without throwing the schedule out the window.

So, even I can't always completely buy into new ideas, and support them totally.


Obvious forms of resistance can be negotiated or worked around. Subtle forms of resistance are harder to see, and potentially more devastating. Whenever you think you see resistance in others, make sure you're not seeing your resistance mirrored. The goal is to work together and complete the work.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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