Revisiting The ‘Why’ Behind the Faces of Resistance

In working through budget decisions, District implementation and the inevitable change that confronts us all as we start planning for the next school year, I am reminded of Mary C. Shaefer’s post about Understanding the Faces of Resistance when “trying to influence co-workers, employees and fellow human beings.”   She very astutely listed four of the faces: skepticism, cynicism, ‘WIFM’ syndrome and the classic, “personal” agenda.  What resonated most for me, however, were her words about looking underneath these faces; the ability to look behind the mask that these emotions represent and seeing the real face by understanding the emotions that are triggering the response.  She explains:

All of these have very human concerns underneath them. As long as someone “feels” something about what you are doing, you have something to work with. I think it is the sign of a good leader to strive to look underneath these seemingly insurmountable reactions and work them through.

I agree wholeheartedly with Shaefer: we need to “peel away the onion” and understand what resides “inside” these “faces.”  It’s great that your are “feeling” something but I need to figure out what is triggering you and making you react in this way.  We (not you or I in isolation) need to work this through.

Schools Districts, like most work communities, are representative of complex cultures wherein suspicions of formal leadership can and do, unfortunately, arise. The faces of resistance, clearly, are reflective of relationship breakdowns.  The good leader in “looking underneath these seemingly insurmountable reactions” must not only recognize the “face” but more importantly the basis of the reaction.  Only when an understanding of the place of origin can be determined will an honest, open and trusting discussion take place.

In looking at relationships and how/why faces of resistance arise, I would suggest that there are three points of origin: the philosophical, the procedural and the personal.

The first speaks to differences of opinion in terms of what is best for a respective community.  Suspicion of formal leadership arises in this case not because stakeholders disagree with the decision of the leader but because of their inability to trust that the leader is acting from a deep conviction to a moral purpose: namely to build capacity for continuous learning within a caring and inclusive community.  In a situation like this, I would acknowledge this “inability” by centering dialogue on the “why” and the “what” purpose behind our/my actions and explicitly recognizing the disquiet and uncertainty that staff are feeling.  Although in doing this I would be once again expounding upon my ‘philosophy’ to staff, I would respectively be in a space that puts others before myself.

If the issue is one that is procedural, in other words, if people are asking “Is there a Machiavellian intent behind what the leader is doing?” then the approach is one that must focus on process: has it been open, collaborative, transparent?  The complexity of the space, in this instance, resides in the management domain and is one that is more easily corrected.

The most difficult face of resistance to understand and deal with is the one which finds its origin within the politics of personality (“I’m skeptical and cynical because I just don’t like you”).  These situations are the most difficult and call for the leader to have the ability to be self-reflective.  I like to recall what my former Counseling Department Head used to say to me when, upon finishing my complaint about how I had been treated by a colleague, she would look at me and ask: “What is it about you that is eliciting this response from your colleague?”  At the  heart of this ‘remedy’ is compassion and understanding rather than anger and reproach.  As well is the recognition that a leader doesn’t need to be liked or admired by all (something that is rare) but he/she does need to be respected and, hopefully, trusted.

Three situations, three different reasons why faces of resistance arise and why relationships can break; however, each of these situations is fixable and, concomitantly, each ‘face’ transformable.

In the end, I’ll put to you the same question from Mary C. Shaefer, the one that inspired me to post this blog: “What are some things you have learned about dealing with the faces of resistance?”


  1. Hey Pal,

    First of all, great post. I really enjoyed it.

    One of the things that I wish principals would realize is that resistance doesn’t mean that a person isn’t a team player. Instead, resistance could be evidence of a genuine commitment to the team.

    I often resist for some of the reasons you mention here. I push against ideas when I don’t think they’re well thought out. I also push against ideas when I’m not convinced that they are aligned with the core direction of our building.

    But I’m not resisting to be difficult. I’m resisting instead because I’m trying to protect our school from the inevitable disaster that comes from implementing ideas that are poorly thought out or misaligned with who we say we want to be.

    I’d argue that most principals interpret resistance as a personality based thing, but that most resistance is based in philosophy or procedure.

    Whaddya’ think?

    • Bill, thanks for the thoughtful response. The danger with leadership is that one may fall into the trap of personalizing resistance – you’re absolutely on the mark with that. Separating the personality from the philosophy, the objective from the subjective is so necessary in leadership and so difficult in education when it seems like we’re always flying around managing, creating, massaging and triaging everything and everyone around us.

      One of the keys to leadership for Principals is the the ability to welcome resistors and resistance as a means to bring depth to any discussion. When I was a school Principal, I had a sign outside my door that read “Resistors Welcomed” – students loved it more than the staff!

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to share

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