(Complaining About) Resistance is Futile


It's such a common complaint when any program struggles or fails in an organization. Leaders often bemoan the supposedly undeniable fact that “our people are resistant to change.”

It's such a simple statement – and one that doesn't get challenged nearly enough. I'll do so here…

I know many of you are skeptical about Twitter (follow me). There's a lot of noise on Twitter and you can always find someone to just argue with, if you want. But, it's possible to have thought-provoking exchanges, even in a 140-character format.

I saw a tweet from Stephen Parry (@leanvoices), the author of the book Sense and Respond: The Journey to Customer Purpose. I've recently met and gotten to know Parry and his work within the past year.

Parry wrote:

I responded:

And the real pithy wisdom came from Parry:

Ouch, right? That nails it right there… and in far fewer than 140 characters. I nominate that as “Tweet of the Year.”

I'm sorry to say but “there's resistance to change” is an excuse. We blame others instead of asking what we haven't communicated properly. Or we don't examine to see if we're just pushing our own ideas on people instead of engaging them in mutually-developed solutions. Maybe people think the leaders are “solving” the wrong problem in the wrong way.

I took LEI to task a few years for their survey about lean challenges that was pretty much the blame game:

Of the top five lean challenges, THREE of them blamed people at different levels:

  • Middle management resistance (36.1%)
  • Lack of implementation know-how (31.0%)
  • Employee resistance (27.7%)
  • Supervisor resistance (23.0%)
  • Lack of crisis (17.7%)

Read more:  Survey Blames Blame for Lean Struggles

So much resistance, huh? Does that probably mean, instead, that we have a leadership crisis in our world, rather than saying we have a “resistance crisis”? It's sort of harsh to say to a leader that the resistance is probably more your fault than it is the fault of those being resistant.

I don't believe the statement that says “people are resistant to change.” That becomes an excuse, as we can sit back and blame others for not doing what we want. I think it's more true to say “people don't like to be told what to do.” I've been thinking and saying this for many years now (and I included this idea in my book Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Satisfaction – see page 85 via Google Books).

To be a high-performing high-quality organization, I think we need to quit telling people what to do.

When we face “resistance” or when we find ourselves talking about that, let's let that moment inspire us to be introspective and to go listen and learn from those who are “being resistant.” Why are they being resistant? What's the root cause of this resistance? Don't say “they're bad people.”

Don't just blame and complain. Be a leader.

Your thoughts? Is there validity to “resistance to change” or is it just a cheap excuse that gets tossed around too easily?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Mark, you hit on one of my favorite discussion points. My thoughts:

    Terry Barnhart discussed the Boyd’s OODA Loop with me and how it could be used to implement Lean without the efforts of top management or a mandate driven down the chain. It could be driven by performance from the edge. The idea came up during the discussion on isolation and how Boyd saw isolation as a critical strategic device. In effect, the opposite of the information-rich environment that you picture in developing Lean, isolation could be a key factor in a Lean Transformation.

    Isolating your enemy, Boyd saw, as a powerful tool in making his OODA loop inoperable, cutting off the flow of information both in and out of the organization. In his 14-hour briefing, “A Discourse on Winning and Losing,” Boyd described three strategies for isolation.

    In the book, the Power of Pull the authors also discuss similar topics and said: “Knowledge flows naturally flourishes on the edge. Why? Because by definition, participants on these edges are wrestling with how to match unmet needs with unexploited capabilities and all the uncertainty that implies. Edge participants therefore focus on ways to innovate and create value by connecting unmet needs with unexploited capabilities and then scaling these opportunities as rapidly as possible. In the process, they create significant new knowledge. ”

    These 2 areas of reference led me to this hypothesis:

    Building a collaborative team effort will be much easy out on the edge. You will be able to develop and modify your lean practices with ready participants that are looking for similar solutions. Look for early success on the edge, they are much more forgiving and helpful building your team there. As you start moving to the core expect to encounter resistance. Sidestep the resistance, why waste your time? As you build constituency, integrate your culture downstream and the non-believers will isolate themselves from the team.

  2. My variation on yours has been, “people are resistant to being changed”. On the way home from a meeting during which I heard “buy-in” one too many times, I bought Kotter’s latest book of the same name. Another perspective on the many ways in which an idea meets resistance. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective and the game is to help people find their own ideas, solutions and action to better serve customers. But then they may have to make a change. Or deal with others’ resistance. Hmmmm… What everyone was in the change making mode, would they be less resistant to change suggested by others? In my experience, yes. How can such a culture and expectation become the default mode? As you say, leadership.

  3. When I teach Change Management, one of the statements I use is, “Resistance results from imposed change which is perceived as negative.” I encourage people to find the root cause of the resistance and address the issues that are discovered. A blanket “too much resistance” statement is a cop-out. We need to know why the resistance is there.

  4. “The resistance to change is proportional to your lack of leadership.”…geez, Mark & Stephen, do you have to hold up THAT mirror!

    As a corollary to that, perhaps the resistance to change is equal to the amount of respect that is still needed.

    • Yes, well put.

      I’m not holding myself up as a perfect leader who doesn’t run into “resistance to change” due to my lack of leadership or lack of listening or lack of communication. I’m not trying to point the finger at others. This blog is part of my own introspection, as Stephen’s words resonated with me. I think I do a good job of leading, but one can always do better.

      If Stephen’s words sting, it’s probably a good sign that the reader is being introspective and is capable of improving, as well.

  5. Excellent topic Mark. I appreciate the challenge to reframe resistance to an issue of leadership (it’s actually a welcome kick in the pants for a major project of mine that has only been partially successful in its implementation to date for me).

    Dean… I would augment your definition of resistance and change the word “negative” to “distressful”. Some people will perceive a change as negative but necessary… the associated stress (“eustress”) could then actually still be a powerful motivator and tapped into.

  6. It should sting if it hits home. I have found the resistance is there for a reason. Years of not listening to employees or one flavor of the month program after another. Another possible reason is too many leaders. Where I work, most of the people that move up come from one manufacturing facility. People know the leadership will only be there a couple of years and then move on. Even if all of them are good leaders, they want to put their mark on things to be noticed. After so many the employees know they just have to wait it out.

    This just surfaces another issue about consistency of message and purpose. That’s for another time.

  7. On a truly serious note, I like the title of this blog entry. Clearly, Mark, you understand the Borg from Star Trek, TNG and can liken resistance to them as the ultimate challenge. ;-)

  8. My bad. I thought for sure your title was play on the Borg from Star Trek, The Next Generation, whose frequent saying to resistors who tried to fight absorption into their hive was, “Resistance is futile.”


  9. Mark,
    I believe there is resistance to change. I think it’s real and I have blogged about it a number of times. One of the problems I perceive for some individuals working in a lean environment is that they are no longer called upon to be the savior for those who are floundering in inefficient value streams. Firefighters are promoted on their firefighting skills and not necessarily promoted for their substantive skills. A lean workplace may not provide the approval they are used to getting and they resist. I was only able to make progress in a number of programs when I let this type of individual go. My best thinking is that this type of manager is the “fixed mindset” person defined by Carol Dweck. I am trying to learn how we change fixed mindsets, but am not there yet.
    Anyway, that’s my 16 cents worth (this is the current value of 2 cents in the year I was born).

    • There may be what we call “resistance” but my main point with this post is not to let that turn into an excuse. Leaders too often blame their people for “being resistant” instead of asking and understanding why that conflict is there.

  10. “Lack of leadership” nails it … Or, perhaps more specifically, “uncertainty.” I don’t think people are resistant to change, fundamentally. People are reluctant to change to something they’re uncertain about.

    People will change & will go in the direction of clarity. They need to understand 1)Why change, 2)How to change and 3)What to do. .. and the clearer #1 is, the less clear 2 & 3 need to be. (i.e. If I give you #1 and half of #2, you’ll be comfortable with filling in the rest.)

  11. All interesting, but let’s get inside the skin of the “resisters”. I’ve heard this teaching attributed to Shigeo Shingo: “90% of resistiance is cautionary.”

    How often are people just trying to get across their concern for the success of the enterprise or their own safety (emotional, economic, other)? They are worried our approach/system/initiative is going to damage something important to them, and they may not be able to express it clearly. In my experience the number of people who are committed to stasis for the sake of stasis is small.

    Trying to put Shingo’s thought into action, my approach is to try to draw out and identify specific concerns. Get the concerns on the wall as identified problems or issues and commit to addressing them. If we’ve made a case for change and they trust us (!), this goes along way toward enrolling people.

    • Yes! Your story and example with Shingo highlights the need for listening and understanding.

      The type of leadership I’m calling for to deal with “resistance” isn’t the classical charismatic “give a speech to get everyone on board” leadership.

      You described that really well, Andrew. And, yes, without trust it is hard to do much.

  12. Great discussion!

    As others state I also often face managers using the classical excuse about resistance when the results are not visible. For me the discussion is especially interesting as I work with implementation of Lean in Scandinavia (Denmark, Europe).

    Over the years the approach to changes has changed in Denmark. Yes, I still meet resistance to change and always will. But where we 5 years ago would have struggled with resistance at many levels the situation is now more, that resistance is handled by the employees themselves. They know that changes are necessary to stay in business.

    The “top five Lean challenges” is interesting as I see the “lack of crisis” as the changing point. Here in Denmark is becomes more and more clear to people in general that we have to be more competitive to fight the many new industrial countries.

    Maybe the Scandinavian management style also plays a role here. Lean is a top-down decision. Not doubt. But Lean is often implemented bottom-up. This means that it is a group of employees (not managers) who define how to work with Lean – within the scope from the top-management.
    E.g. they define how to work with 5S, how to audit and evaluate 5S (employees audit 5S – not managers), how the Kaizen-boards should look like and the agenda at Kaizen-meetings. Also they make the implementation plan and give inputs to the Lean-KPI’s.

    This approach naturally removes resistance from the organisation, as the “Local version of Lean” has been defined by the colleagues (and approved by management).

    Resistance today is often found at management level and not among employees. For sure Lean is a challenge to the “classical top-down management style”. When such managers are found in an organisation implementing Lean they are to change their management style very quickly – or find another job. In Denmark most companies have a open and direct communication in an informal organizational structure and therefore such managers will feel an enormous pressure.

  13. Resistance to change is a fact. Just as there is no frictional force acting on an object when it is stationary, such a force is experienced should you try to push (or pull) that object into a new position.

    But is resistance reasonable? If people are uncertain about the direction and destination, the cautionary principle applies, as has been said above. That’s why in English we have a saying, “Better the devil you know”. Who wants to jump from the frying pan into the fire?

    However, we also have a saying that “the grass is always greener on the other side”. Some folk always want to move to better pastures.

    So, can both be true? Of course.

    The West was won by pioneers who were prepared to transform their lives, face uncertainty, and move on toward a promised land. They were lured into a change.

    The point is that those who are prepared to move have become (sufficiently) uncomfortable and/or dissatisfied with where they are, and have expectations of a (significantly) better future state (for them, personally). And critically, the decision to move is their own.

    The role of the leader involves aspects of both servant leadership… facilitation of the transformation… and cheer leader… encouragement of those engaged in that transformation (regularly reinforced).

    Strategic leaders may first create a sense of urgency (i.e. dissatisfaction with the dangers & uncertainties inherent in the current state). They might communicate a (credible) vision of the new ‘promised land’ that will attract (i.e. pull) the people. They may establish a ‘True North’ direction so people know which way to travel. Such leaders will realise they can’t do everything, or be everywhere at once. So they will ensure their executive colleagues and other thought leaders in their organisation are bought-in to the same vision, direction of travel, and are prepared to serve and to shout encouragement too.

    Then perhaps, especially if the leader makes the necessary resources available, people will decide for themselves that change is better than the status quo. Ref: John Kotter.

    In Star Trek, the Borg say, “Resistance is Futile!”. But they have over-whelming force on their side. They forcibly assimilate everyone they can get their cyborg hands upon. In Dr. Who, the Cybermen say, “You will be assimilated!” and also try to enforce their rule. In both cases, the ‘assimilees’ are given no choice… but original thought and innovation are destroyed. The future state is not at all attractive to the protagonists. Note that both the Borg and the Cybermen are unsympathetic villains. They may win a battle, but they never win the war.

    To Borg, or not to Borg, is that the question?

  14. Thank you Mark for bringing up such a rich topic, and all contributors for your point of views and comments. I appreciate.

    The Cycle of Grief is another example of resistance to change. Being thrown in a change that cannot be undone, and how one transforms.

  15. Firstly Parry has it almost perfect when he said “The resistance to change is proportional to your lack of leadership”, however it is also proportional to the lack of management skill in an organization.

    Today we mistake micro-control freaks with managers, real managers rarely ever try controlling people, instead they focus on bring out everyone’s best. When you do that you do not need to be controlling.

    True leadership and managementship, empower everyone in an organization. Leader provide vision and direction, while managers, get the right people to do each part in order to reach the goal. Additionally true leaders and managers value open honest feedback, they want to hear the truth, unfortunately in all to many companies a good sounding lie is the prefered answer.

    The great leaders and empire builders of history, never surrounded themselves with yes men, knowing the truth empowered them to adapt their vision to the current reality. Truly great managers never try to look great personally, they look great simply because their people out perform others. Great leaders and managers, both empower those under them to do their best, when people are empowered they are far more willing to accept change, in fact they often generate it themselves without being asked, because it is part of their role in the enterprise.

    Resistence is simply the visible result of a lack of leadership and true management in any organization.

  16. People tend to see themselves as living in a world that is far more complex and changing than any time in the past.

    Whether this is true or not in the abstract, people still perceive life that way and seek out safe, quiet places in their work, daily lives and homes.

    Change is necessary in life and people naturally resist it. This is where a leader becomes the shepherd.

    • I don’t agree at all with the generalization that “people naturally resist” change.

      Many people love eating at the same restaurant all the time, but many people LOVE new restaurants, trips to new places, new experiences, new TV shows, new brands of artificially-flavored snacks, what have you.

      I think people hate being FORCED into change. That’s what people resist, I think. It’s all about the level of control you have over your own situation.

      • True, there are some who are willing early adaptors.

        But I seem to get stuck with the ones who are rigid, rote and rebellious.

        • I’d ask those who are “rigid, rote, and rebellious” to talk about the last time they tried something new, out of their own initiative. I bet they can come up with something. I bet it was something that was their idea. Are they just not excited about your ideas? Honest question, I think.

          • Good question.

            I see people as either seekers or followers. You and I are probably of the former, where most blue collar workers as I have, at least in my unique industry, are mostly the latter who find little comfort in the unknown.

            Sometimes it’s just better to give up trying to motivate them to new ideas when wading through the old ideas is such a slog for them.

  17. The image of the ‘leader as shepherd’ who, aided by his sheepdogs (process improvement consultants?), chivvy the ‘flock’ of ‘worker sheep’ toward the destination desired (by the shepherd), is not one I find any sympathy with.

    IMO it is the epitome of push and top-down command & control, and the antithesis of pull, of servant leadership and empowerment of talent.

  18. Yes, I think resistance is being used as an excuse, leadership is definitely responsible on at least part of it. Here, is a very interesting video where the presenter makes it clear that people don’t resist change but the way it was introduced to them and the uncertainty that may come along.

    enjoy watching!


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