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This page contains some notes on "resistance", particularly in the context of technology change management.

Resistance is a form of stability affecting people and organizations, especially when faced with opportunities for change.

Sometimes managers and consultants put themselves into the position of change agents - in other words, they are demanding change from their staff and organizations. If they fail to receive full and prompt cooperation with these demands, these change agents experience annoyance and frustration. However, once a change is implemented, the same managers and consultants will themselves try to resist any attempts to divert or pervert the change, or to revert to the previous state.

Within the change management literature, there is some material on anti-resistance tactics, although the topic is often ignored or skimmed over. (One standard work on organizational development devotes a mere half page to the subject.)

In our work, we are careful to characterize resistance, not as something to be overcome, but as something to be understood and accommodated.

overcoming resistance?

preserving the ability to resist

interpreting resistance

from whose perspective?

is it sometimes rational to resist?

cooperation and trust

surfacing resistance

inexplicable resistance?

self-organizing systems


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veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Overcoming Resistance

veryard projects > technology change management > resistance > overcoming resistance

Many people in technology change management talk about overcoming resistance. Technology change is seen as a battle between the forces of progress (i.e. the champions of technology) and the forces of resistance.

This echoes a popular theme in psychotherapy, where the therapist is supposed to overcome the resistance of the patient - resistance is interpreted as a sign of hostility on the part of the patient. This is explored (in his characteristic convoluted style) by Derrida. (For a Frenchman, of course, the contrast between Resistance and Collaboration has particular historical significance.)

And according to Nietzsche, strong people seek strong resistance. "The undertaking is to master, not any resistances that happen to present themselves, but those against which one has to bring all one's strength, suppleness and mastery of weapons - to master equal opponents."

Levels of resistance

Rick Maurer has identified three levels of resistance, calling for three entirely different anti-resistance tactics.
Level 1 - Informational People lack information or understanding about the change. Tactic: provide more information and explanation. Lots of training.
Level 2 - Gut Reaction People regarding change as a threat, and responding emotionally or physiologically ("gut" reaction). Tactic: provide reassurance, motivation, "safety nets", and so on.
Level 3 - Cultural People seeing change in the context of a prior history of conflict. Tactic: political negotiation.

He believes that many change initiatives fail, not because of resistance, but because of an inappropriate response by management to this resistance. This most commonly appears in the form of a Level 1 response to a Level 2 resistance.
more Rick Maurer: Beyond Resistance

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Respecting and Preserving Resistance

veryard projects > technology change management > resistance > preserving resistance

In popular psychotherapy, the therapist is supposed to overcome the resistance of the patient - resistance is interpreted as a sign of hostility on the part of the patient. However, the radical French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, disagreed with this -- in his view, resistance is not a question of hostility, but a structural phenomenon. Resistance is to be valued and respected.

A similar disagreement can be found among consultants and managers involved in change within organization. Although many hold the popular view (resistance is hostile, needs to be overcome), there is a more subtle view, in which resistance is respected.

Given that change agents usually want to make lasting changes, and to leave the organization in a stable condition, they need to take care when overcoming resistance. The organization should remain able to resist many other changes, as well as resisting an immediate reversal of the desired changes.

Furthermore, resistance is closely related to resilience, which is vital for organizations dealing with operational failure and occasional crisis.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Understanding and Interpreting Resistance

veryard projects > technology change management > resistance > understanding resistance

Interpreting resistance

In her 1997 paper on the Ecology of Resistance, Linda Levine talks about interpreting resistance as due critique. I see this as a stratification of resistance: resistance at the first level counts as cooperation at the second level. Conversely, cooperation at the first level can sometimes be interpreted as resistance at the second level: mechanical compliance that avoids real learning.

Resistance interpreted as positive behaviour rather than negative. I am reminded of the work of the hypnotist Milton Erikson, who welcomed the client's resistance and used it as a way of getting them to change. For example, he would instruct the client to resist, so that any response whatever would count as cooperation. And once he instructed someone to do something any day of the week but preferably Friday. In order to resist doing it on Friday, the client had to do it on Thursday instead. Erikson, of course, didn't really care which day of the week the client did it. (Some of Erikson's techniques have been incorporated in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which is becoming increasingly fashionable in the UK.)

Surfacing resistance

Under what circumstances does the resistance surface? There are some organizations where rational resistance (due critique) is impossible (taboo), and people find ways of accommodating change rather than confronting the issues. From a psychoanalytic perspective, I'd argue that the resistance inevitably surfaces somehow, but often in a distorted form: dysfunctional behaviour, or what we might call symptoms of the repressed resistance. It then takes an analytic process similar to psychoanalysis to put the organization on the couch and understand the meaning of these symptoms.

Inexplicable resistance?

From an analytic point of view, what I find most interesting are the intractable cases: where there is no apparent reason for the resistance, everyone appears to want the innovation, but the innovation doesn't happen. There is some inertia - resistance to change - which cannot be located in any particular person or group or procedure, but pervades the organization. This inertia is sometimes equated with bureaucracy, but it is just as often to be found in the most anti-bureaucratic organizations.

To work effectively with these organizations, the consultant has to go beyond the rationalist notion of resistance with its anti-resistance tactics, and find a way of working with or above the resistance. We seem to need to think in terms of the 'architecture' of the organization, in the sense of a topological structure that makes some things accessible/possible and other things inaccessible/impossible. See for example the work of Philip Boxer, who uses ideas from Lacan, Foucault and Maturana, among others, to try and conceptualize this kind of intervention.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Resistance and Rationality

veryard projects > technology change management > resistance > rationality

From whose perspective?

It is important to consider the rationality and subjectivity of resistance. From what (or whose) perspective (if any) does the resistance make sense, in terms of a set of perceptions, beliefs, values and priorities? If this question can be answered, there are several anti-resistance tactics for the innovation champion, including: persuasion (changing the perceptions and beliefs of the resisting folks); negotiation (changing their priorities by offering them some incentive or removing some disincentive); and marginalization (changing the innovation and/or the organization so that the resistance becomes acceptable or irrelevant - in extreme cases, this may mean taking the resisting folks out of the frame altogether).

Is it sometimes rational to resist?

'resistance can be a sound and smart response to a flawed initiative' [Linda Levine, private communication]

Linda's statement assumes a notion of rational behaviour. I think there is an important connection between resistance and rationality.

One starting point for discussing resistance is that of a change agent, who has a set of change goals, and regards anything or anybody who gets in his/her way as a nuisance. Resistance is stupid and has to be overcome, using force, guile, patience or whatever other strengths and resources the change agent can access. This is all defined in terms of the change agent's goals.

If an initiative is flawed, this is presumably also relative to the change agent's goals. The resisters share the change agent's goals, but disagree with his/her tactics. It may be sound and smart for them to resist (due critique), and it may be sound and smart for the change agent to allow/encourage this resistance.

But of course, what counts as sound and smart behaviour for the resisters depends on their assessment of the reasonableness of the change agent, especially if the change agent appears to have more power and status than they have. There are enormous cultural issues here.
more Rationality and collaboration

Cooperation and trust

There are also issues of trust. The change agent may say that constructive criticism is welcome, but do we dare to say what we really think? We may think we're making constructive criticism, but other people may think we're engaged in nit-picking or even deliberate delaying tactics. What if the change agent has the power to influence my career if I step out of line?
more Trust

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Resistance in self-organizing systems

veryard projects > technology change management > resistance > self-organizing systems

Are self-organizing systems the ones most receptive to change? Some recent work in cybernetics would suggest the reverse. A self-organizing or self-producing system, which Maturana/Varela call an autopoietic system, is one that is concerned above all to preserve its own identity and coherence.

Preservation of identity equals resistance to changes that threaten identity. A biological entity has a skin that separates inside from outside, and an immune subsystem that rejects foreign implants. These defences and boundaries are part of the process of self-organization. An autopoietic system is, in a sense, a closed system. (Compare: the Ego as a defence system, a self-identity which often prevents the individual acting in his/her own best interest.)

And even the change agent wants the organization to have sufficient resistance (or at least hysteresis) so that valuable changes, once made, are not immediately dissipated by other changes. I've seen a chart produced by a large American engineering firm, boasting of all the quality initiatives it has implemented over the past couple of decades, but there are so many of these initiatives that it creates an impression not of comprehensive endeavour but of inconsistency and fashion-chasing.
more Immune Systems

References and related material

author recommended book ordering details
Philip Boxer. Management consultant and Lacanian analyst. A wealth of material is available on his website:
Jacques Derrida Resistances of Psychoanalysis Explores the resistance to analysis contained within Freud, Lacan and Foucault. buy from
buy from amazon uk
Jon Elster. A brilliant theorist, who covers economics, politics, sociology and philosophy, without losing touch with the humanity and, yes, poetry of the subjects he is writing about. 


His Sour Grapes touches on some of the themes of this page: rationality, trust. buy from
buy from amazon uk
Milton Erikson. There are several books by and about Erikson and his techniques.  Start with Jay Haley's book Uncommon Therapy. buy from
buy from amazon uk
Jacques Lacan. Only the brave or foolhardy would start by reading Lacan's own notoriously difficult writings.  Dylan Evans's Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis is a useful reference. buy from
buy from amazon uk
Linda Levine

An Ecology of Resistance. Paper presented at the IFIP 8.6 conference in Ambleside, June 1997.

Published in Tom McMaster, Enid Mumford, Burt Swanson, Brian Warboys & Dave Wastell (eds), Facilitating Technology Transfer through Partnership: Learning from Practice and Research. Chapman & Hall, 1997. ISBN 0412 79980 4 buy from
buy from amazon uk
Humberto Maturana

There are two main works by Maturana and his equally brilliant student Franscisco Varela. 


tree of knowledgeAutopoiesis and Cognition (currently out of print) is deeper and harder to read, while the Tree of Knowledge is an easier and more popular work. buy from
buy from amazon uk
Rick Maurer. An advisor to organizations on ways to transform resistance into support for major change.

Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Bard Press.1996. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

Claimed as the intellectual father of a wide and inconsistent range of modern and post-modern movements, from fascism to feminism, via psychoanalysis.

Quote on this page is taken from Ecce Homo

Penguin edition, p 47


This page originated from a discussion with Linda Levine in 1997. I'm indebted to Philip Boxer for innumerable conversations on related issues. Thanks also to Rick Maurer.

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This page last updated on February 28th, 2002
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