5 ways to deal with resistance in your team

In guiding your team through change it’s helpful to recognise the different forms of resistance that emerge, so that you can deal with them and mitigate their negative effect on individuals in the team and on the business.

Here are five signs of resistance you may come across in your team – and what you can do to help them move through resistance to successful change.


Some people strongly dislike surprises and in particular, personal uncertainty. When confronted by change they resist, find fault, feign ignorance (and others, see below). WIIFM – What’s in it for me? is the first question people want answered.

Giving detailed information about what is happening (or likely to happen), the personal implications of the change for them, how long the uncertainty will last and the reason why the change is happening all help to create trust and reduce stress and increase willingness to move forward.

Help them to assess for themselves whether the risk of standing still greatly outweighs the risk and effort required to change. If necessary, help them develop the knowledge of how to change.

2. Loss of Face

One of the most commonly under-estimated reasons why team members resist new ideas and people is their underlying fear that somehow, they will not measure up; that they will be embarrassed or be shown up or that they will look stupid or incompetent.

You can help them by praising their contribution; by acknowledging the fear by ‘naming it’. If their resistance is quite vocal, get them on their own to discuss and ask them to list their skills, successes, knowledge and experiences. This will help build their confidence and help mitigate any fear of loss of face. Encourage their participation in planning action, building a clear picture of a positive future and implementing the way forward. If they need to learn new skills, help them think about how they can develop them.

3. Attached to the status quo

‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ sums up this reason why team members resist change. How things are right now is just fine (even when it’s not). They feel safe with people, routine, procedures and methodologies – and thought of changing is so uncomfortable, some people will want to avoid the unknown at all costs. Their attachment is to ‘the status quo’, how things are right now. Even if things are not perfect, the status quo brings comfort and certainty.

Encourage them to find a positive time when they were courageous and able to let go. Acknowledge that being able to overcome scary, uncomfortable and unwelcome change is a fantastic strength. Help them plan how they will apply their experience and skills to the new situation. This helps them ‘keep’ some of what they are attached to and this can relieve a sense of risk or fear. Gaining their commitment to being part of the solution is a key milestone and can help increase self-confidence and determination.

4. Past resentments

They say an ‘elephant never forgets’ and some team members find it hard to let go of past resentments and grievances. These are often associated with a particular person or historical situation. Whether they want to or not, they hang on to the anger and bitterness long after the offence or interaction took place.

Your role as leader-manager is invaluable here because you can help them acknowledge the distinction between the old and the current situation. Help them explore what benefits or secondary gains they get from keeping hold of the resentment. This often helps people realise there aren’t any benefits, and this helps them let go of the resentment or anger. If you can, work with them to address each resentment. Alternatively have them think about where they can get help, counselling or support if the resentments are deep-seated and entrenched.

5. Real threat

Some change is a real threat. It is unrealistic to expect people to be motivated and fully engaged in a change of circumstance that means they will lose something significant or irreplaceable to them. For instance it may be they will lose their job, it may be a threat to their health, livelihood, career prospects, security, or relationships. When people feel threatened, their ‘distrust’ sensors are working overtime – and fear gets in the way of thinking and acting clearly.

It is therefore essential to be completely honest with them i.e. that a happy outcome may not be inevitable, or that resolution may take time. Assist them in analysing the real risk as distinct from the ‘perceived’ risk (little no concrete evidence, more likely to be them projecting fears than actual threat). Involve them to find ways to mitigate or deal with the pain/threat of change by identifying options about how to manage it or the associated risk. If your organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme or equivalent, suggest it as a useful support mechanism.

The important thing in helping people overcome resistance is to be honest, acknowledge the facts as they are at the time. Avoiding ‘the elephant in the room’ will drive the resistance under-ground; better to share ‘why’ the change is happening and discuss the pros and cons of the change with the team, while repeating (as often as necessary) what is negotiable and what is not-negotiable.

With a clear image of what the goal is, people can begin to ‘bridge the gap’ and to move forward, one step at a time.

In the meantime, keep lines of communication open – even when there’s nothing new to report yet, tell them that. Finally, engage team members in finding sensible and practical ways to contribute, then celebrate even small wins as you move forward together.

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About the author

Catherine Joyce is an international consultant, exec coach and author of Being An Agile Leader-Manager published January 2016 by @Panoma Press. Catherine has dedicated her career to being a business leadership consultant and confidant to Directors, Senior Managers and Emerging Leaders in blue-chip companies across a range of industries. She draws on 20 years’ experience on developing agile leadership and helping individuals achieve business success.  She is Managing Director of BlueQuay Limited. www.blue-quay.co.uk @bluequay More blog posts by Catherine Joyce ››
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  • Zvikomborero Matiza

    I agree with you in all the points written. It happened to my company when there was a retrenchment exercise and to my surprise there was resistance to change from those remaining not the retrenched. So yes the remaining staff had to go through that counseling program. It’s a recent happening and I am seeing it helping. employees are now gaining confidence as the above five ways are being implemented.

    • Catherine Joyce

      Hi Zvikomborero Matiza, glad you found the post relevant to what you’re experiencing in your company. The resistance to change by people who remain can be tough, both for those who experience it – and for those whose job it is to help them overcome it and move on. Many experience ‘survivors guilt’ and understandable anger.As things settle, people begin to to feel a little safer and less fearful, Having leader-managers who are good communicators will help and the counselling program your company provided was a very sensible support mechanism. Great to hear your team are not gaining confidence. Well done !


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