The ‘Why’ Behind the Faces of Resistance

In a very recent post, Mary C. Shaefer wrote 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, 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.  In other words, I 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?”

8 Comments
  1. Great thoughts Gino! I’ve learned a lot from the faces of resistance.

    First, as Fullan articulates so well, we have to embrace the resisters as they can be crucial to any implementation plan. They can, at anytime, sabotage any well-intentioned initiative. They all have a story – some have been burned, some have tried to implement something and received very little support, some have been overlooked, some feel jealous, some are professionally dormant, etc.

    One that we often forget – and admittedly it is rare – is that sometimes the resisters are right. We all know the ill effects that can come from ‘group-think’ so we always have to be open to the possibility that the resisters may be on to something. Again, typically not the case, but it is possible.

    Leaders are really tested when people resist. Trying to understand why they are resisting is, as you say, very important. We can take it personally or we can find out the story behind it and ask them how we can make them feel more comfortable with the direction in which we are headed. Politics, hidden agendas, and hurt feelings are all part of people’s backgrounds in one way or another. When they choose to express it in the form of resistance we have to be willing to take the time to ask the right questions that allow their position to be heard.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tom.
      Appreciating everyone’s “story” is of utmost importance – usually calls for us to slow down and engage in the most thoughtful manner.
      You’re dead on about accepting the possibility of ‘credibility’ behind resistance and the dangers of “group-think”.
      Great lessons to keep in the fore as we head into the ‘busiest’ time of year

  2. I think it’s also important to know that, especially as a new leader to an organization, that people are likely to view any leader with suspicion if their previous leader had problems.

    So one of the faces that is important is the perceived face of the leader, from the perspective of the person who is expected to follow.

    • Presupposed baggage – what are you inheriting as a new leader not in terms of physical or educational but ‘personnel’ resources. What ‘space’ is your staff in, and in figuring this out, how does the leader respond. I think your point, David, should be page one material for any incoming administrator in any school.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  3. This is leadership. I don’t necessarily have any major insight or advice. I do know that developing relationships based on respect and trust are critical. Right now we are discussing our school growth plans for next year. While, as principal, I some strong personal opinions and ideas – the real work now begins as we engage all our stakeholders-including resisters.

    • Thanks for the comments Johnny.
      Good point about involving all stakeholders. One of the things that we always need to do is allow conversations (like those around a School Plans) to take their natural course – allowing for the meandering, pace, and moments of “aha” discovery to arise naturally via staff engagement. The hardest thing to do at times is to sit back and facilitate without letting our own voice dominate what can be an educationally vibrant discourse. By understanding the “faces” and exhibiting this knowledge through the positive relations you create (and judging by your blog, you are fully immersed in these positive relationships at your school), your own voice becomes accepted and valued within this discourse rather than being interpreted as controlling or threatening.
      Best of luck as you move forward with you school planning.

  4. This sounds similar to working with students…when students resist, we re-evaluate our approach and find out where the negativity is coming from. Yet, why is it sometimes harder to do that when it comes from our colleagues?

    I’ve learned that sometimes you need to go out of your way to hear-out the resisters (although some resist with silence). But other times, to stay energized and motivated, you just need to give yourself a break, focus on the positive, and continue to collaborate with like-minded people.

  5. It seems that the classroom and the staffroom both need the time for building relationships. And time is something we struggle to find in schools. Your post is a reminder that we must find that time. Thanks.

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