Overcoming Resistance to Change

I don’t think resistance to change exists. People don’t resist ‘change,’ they resist particular changes, and they do it for reasons that make sense to them. Some people just come up with reasons faster or more comprehensively. I’ve found good insights into how to handle this from two sources.

In this episode, Richard and Peter answer the question, “How do you overcome resistance to change?”

Resources Mentioned in the Episode

“Resistance as a Resource” by Dale Emery
Eli Goldratt’s Layers of Resistance (via Dr K J Youngman)

Episode Transcript


Welcome to the Humanizing Works Show podcast, where we dig into topics large and small related to our mission, which is to help make work more fit for humans, and all of us humans more capable of doing great work. You can learn more about Humanizing Work at humanizingwork.com. This is a Humanizing Work Mailbag, where we answer questions from the Humanizing Work community.

If you’ve got a question you’ve been pondering, email us at mailbag at humanizingwork.com, and we’ll see if we’ve got a good answer for you. Today’s question comes up in nearly every workshop, coaching conversation, and engagement we have. of any kind, with leaders, managers, coaches, scrum masters, really everyone that’s trying to improve anything, encounters some resistance.

And the question is usually framed something like, how do you overcome resistance to change?


I don’t think resistance to change exists. People don’t resist change, they resist particular changes. And they do it for reasons that make sense to them. Some people just come up with reasons faster, or more comprehensively.


This reminds me of something that Dan Heath talks about in his book Switch, which he co authored with his brother Chip. Uh, and he says that when people don’t like a change, they think of it as change. But when they do like a change, like “I chose to buy the new phone or get a new car or to get married,” They don’t think of it as change, but as a choice.

So, for most of us, the word change has this negative association, and the word choice has a positive association.


That reminds me of a thing I think about whenever I’m thinking about resistance to change, and ultimately what convinced me it didn’t exist, which is, think about the person you know who is most resistant to change.

I can think of family members and friends, and pick out any one of them, and now imagine that person winning the lottery. They’re going to change some things, happily and readily. And that same person probably made all kinds of other changes, like upgraded their phone or got a new car. or painted their kitchen.

So they change all the time. They just don’t experience those things as change. So they’re not resistant to change as change. There’s something about some changes that’s different from other changes.


And so when we’re feeling that resistance, sometimes it’s helpful to shift our viewpoint from, here’s another example of this thing that we call a truism, like “people resist change” to “these people are resisting this proposed change.”

And then that can change our response, or to use a more positive language, that gives us new choices in how to respond.


I found good insights about how to handle this from two sources. One, Coach Dale Emery, and another is Eli Goldratt, the creator of the Theory of Constraints. Dale has a great article we’ll link to in the show notes called Resistance as a Resource.

And he talks about how we can’t make people do things. But we can sometimes change a point of view. Theirs, ours, or both. And the way we get there is by treating resistance as a source of information. When somebody pushes back on our change, they’re telling us something. In improv terms, they’re offering us something, and we can take that offer or not, and it can be information about any number of things.

They may be telling us something about history and context, like we tried that before, or “Oh, so and so is not going to like that.” They may be telling us something about themselves, some fear or concern they have. They might be telling you something about you. Maybe this kind of proposal can’t come from somebody in your position.

There’s all sorts of things. The key point, though, is get curious about what is this resistance telling me? Now to help answer that question we got a nice tool from Eli Goldratt who talks about layers or levels of resistance, and over the years he shared several different formulations of it. The one that we find most useful is five levels.

At the bottom level we have disagreement about the nature or extent of the problem. Like sometimes the resistance you’re getting is people don’t believe there’s a problem or don’t think the problem is serious enough to change. or opportunity to change is big enough.

So these are things like, it’s fine. We don’t need to deal with it. That’s not an issue. Things are great as they are. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You know, all those kinds of statements of resistance you might get. They’re not exactly resisting change. They’re telling you, “There doesn’t seem to be enough of a reason to make this change,” so maybe learn what they see and share with them what you see and see if you can get aligned. And the levels of resistance become levels of agreement, by the way.

Level two, disagreement about the effectiveness of the solution. This is resistance along the lines of, “yeah, there’s a problem, but your solution won’t fix it.” We actually don’t get a lot of level 2 resistance, because your solution is probably the best conceived part of your whole proposal. If the problem really exists, you probably did work out a way to solve the problem.

More often we get level 3 resistance, which is It might work, but there are negative side effects. And I find the people in my life that I think of as most resistant to change are often people who are just really good at level three.

They can come up with all the things that will go wrong if we make this change. Like, sure it’ll work, but somebody will be upset, and we’ll run out of money, and the company will go out of business, and what about this, and what about that? I find it really useful to, once I know I’ve got somebody who’s good at level three, engage them early when I’m thinking about a proposal, and ask them to help me brainstorm all the things that could go wrong, and then ask them to help me figure out ways to keep those things from going wrong.

They’re sharing those things, by the way, because they care. They want you collectively in some way to be successful, otherwise they would just silently sabotage your proposal. And they’re sharing this to give you a chance to make it better, so you can accept that offer and engage them in making it better. So that’s level three.

Level four is there are obstacles to implementation of the change. I like hearing level fours because that means they’re on board with making the change, but it’s, well, we don’t have budget for that, or we don’t have time to make that kind of change. Those are probably the most common level fours.

And in those cases, they may be right, or you may need to learn something about where resources could come from to make the change, or maybe you know, and they don’t. And so again, you can change a point of view and align around that.

And then finally level five is doubt about the collaboration of others. Level five resistance sounds like “management won’t let us do it.” It’s somebody outside the room. And there’s really two claims built into a level five objection. The first claim is somebody outside the room won’t be on board. And the second claim is we need them to, and we can test both of those. We could go try to get them on board, go back down to level one and build up their agreement the whole way. Or we could say, do we really need them on board? Maybe we can run a safe experiment within our scope of control and build some credibility to then include them in a larger change.

So that’s levels one through five. Problem, solution, side effect, obstacles, others, and having those levels or layers of resistance in mind helps me when I’m getting curious about the resistance that’s coming at me to say what am I hearing here and how can I respond to it at the correct level.

So that I’m having the same conversation with somebody that they’re trying to have with me instead of talking past them. Where they say, “there’s no problem,” and I reply with, “but my solution to that non problem is great.”


So I particularly like the idea of thinking of the levels as levels of alignment, and making sure that I’ve done that in order, especially if it’s kind of a more formal situation, like we’re in a group considering a change, and we want to make sure that we’re aligned at each level before we move on. It’s really easy to skip a level and start talking past each other. So that’s one of my favorite parts of that model is thinking of it, not necessarily as levels of resistance, but potentially levels of alignment.


If you enjoyed this episode and want more content like this, the best thing you can do is subscribe to the podcast and rate it on your favorite podcast platform. We’d also love it if you shared the podcast with friends, family, and coworkers who you think might benefit from learning more about how to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work.

If you want to help humanizing your work, you can find out more about our products and services at humanizingwork. com. We spend so much of our lives working, so let’s make that investment meaningful for us and for all the people connected to it.

Last updated