Hit Resistance Head on by Addressing the Root Cause: Fear

Whenever human beings are exposed to change at work (or at home, at play or in relationship), resistance is a natural and common phenomenon. Even if change is the "solution," one needs to plan for resistance.

As a learning and training leader, you're tasked with the role of standard bearer of change at your company. In such a role, the important question is: "Can you risk not dealing openly, honestly and directly with resistance?"

The challenge with change is how one adapts to and how one makes change sustainable; the flip side of which is: what gets in the way of adapting and sustainability?

Stretching and Tension

Stretch a rubber band between the thumb and forefinger of each hand; You experience tension. The right-hand represents a "healthy" tension, the positive energy that moves you forward. The left hand represents an "unhealthy" tension, pulling you in the opposite direction, into old habits, patterns, programming and "stories." What's happening on the left side is known as resistance.

Strategies and Tactics Related to Resistance

Generally speaking, there are three strategies folks use to deal with resistance to change. The first is, the "Nike" way—just do it. A second strategy is the "go-along-to-get-along" strategy. And the third strategy is to create change yourself with the notion that if I create it, I won't resist it. I'll return to strategies in a moment.

Some common tactics folks use when dealing with resistance to change include conversations, confrontations, assessments, 360 feedback, anger management classes, criticism and "guilting," bribery, threats, training, EAP programs, coddling, title/position changes and the like.

The downside of such strategies and tactics is, as often as not, they result in compliance—going along to get along—not true and real commitment, buy-in and sincere engagement.

The difficulty with compliance is, it's often passive-aggressive and results in unhealthy and deceptive behaviors. The resistance is not reduced or lessened and, before long, resistance will rear its ugly head again.

Such strategies and tactics deal more with the symptoms of resistance than the resistance itself. And the only open, honest and direct way to deal with resistance is to deal with the root cause of resistance, which is fear


People’s three greatest needs are: control, recognition and security. When these needs are threatened, people resist. Generally speaking, primary reasons people resist change are the fear of:

  • how they will be affected
  • something unfamiliar
  • the unknown
  • giving up control
  • the "new me"
  • giving up the "old me" — my identity

The real or perceived loss of control, recognition or security (mentally, emotionally, physically and/or psychologically) is what's underneath resistance, notwithstanding the fact that people will go to any length to create rationalizations, justifications, excuses, and "stories," to support their resistance. This means looking to and pointing to something or someone as the "reason" for the resistance. It may be a symptom triggering resistance, but the real cause is always "inside."

What Causes the Fear?

The cause of the fear is perception. Perception is how we orient to our world based on our experience, memory and history. If we would bring everyone who is reading this article into a theater and proceeded to show a movie, in real-time, it's quite likely each individual in this room would have a different "interpretation" of what is happening based on his or her individual experience, history and memory.

So, when we experience change, the way we interpret it results in whether we engage in an action or reaction, a positive move forward vis-á-vis the change or a knee-jerk type of resistance.

We all secretly believes that our perception of reality is the "accurate perception." And if I believe my perception of reality is the "accurate" perception, then what does that say about your perception? This causes conflict and resistance.

Our perceptions determine what we experience and how we interpret what we experience. So, when we resisting change, it's most often because the change we are experiencing runs "counter" to how we believe the world should be.

The Antidote

The antidote to dealing with resistance to change is not to deal with the surface behaviors, but to deal with the root cause – fear.

This is often where many "change management" folks stop dead in their tracks. They say it's messy, uncomfortable, "new-agey," touchy-feely, "fluff." In essence, these are the defensive stances one takes because dealing with emotions is uncomfortable.

My take and my experience is that until or unless a business legitimizes dealing with emotions and feelings, the negative emotional undercurrent that prevents any organization from becoming a healthy organization will continue to affect morale, performance, production, success and profits.

Some Questions For Self-Reflection:

  • If you were to look down from 10,000 feet and reflect on your relationship with change over the past day, week, month or year, what would you see?
  • Are you generally open, positive and curious about change? Or are you more negative and resistant? What steps can you take to look at change more positively?

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D., C.P.C. is the founder of True North Partnering an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching and facilitating. He is a professional speaker, published author, and offers full and half-day Overcoming Resistance to Change Workshops. For more information on his workshops, speaking engagements or to reach Peter directly, email pvajda[at]truenorthpartnering.com, or call 770.804.9125. Peter also invites you to follow him on Twitter: @petergvajda