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Signs of Resistance


Disciplines > Change Management > Resistance to change > Signs of Resistance

Early signs of resistance | Collectivism of action | Visibility of resistance | Activity of resistance | See also


When resistance to change occurs, then it is very helpful to be able to spot it coming and hence respond appropriately to it (rather than be surprised when the change mysteriously fails).

Early signs of resistance

If you can catch resistance early, then you can respond to it before it takes hold, effectively nipping it in the bud.


When the change is announced, the tom-toms will start beating loudly and grapevine will bear fruit of much and varied opinion. Keep your ear to the ground on what is being said around the coffee points. Listen particularly for declaration of intent and attempts to organize resistance.

Grumbling and complaint are natural ways of airing discomfort, so you should not try to squash it (you would fail, anyway). The biggest danger of it is when it is allowed to ferment in an information vacuum.

Respond to gossip by opening it up, showing you are listening to concerns and taking them seriously, and providing lots of valid information that will fill the vacuum.


Just as a high school class will test a teacher's ability to maintain discipline, so also will some brave soul test out what happens when they resist change. They may, for example, not turn up to a meeting or openly challenge a decision.

How you deal with such early resistance will have a significant effect on what happens next. For example you can jump on the person and squash both them and their words, or you can take an adult position, describing what they have done and assertively questioning their motives.

Collectivism of resistance

Resistance can happen both on an individual case-by-case basis or people may band together.

Individual action

Individually, people may resist, although this is generally limited to the extent of their personal power. For those with lower power, this may include passive refusals and covert action. For those with more power, it can include open challenge and criticism.

Handle individual action individually, starting with those with greater power. As necessary, you may need to make an example, and disciplining a senior executive can send a strong signal to other resistors.

Collective action

When people find a common voice in organized resistance, then their words and actions can create a significant threat to the change, even though they are individually less powerful. Trade Unions are a classic example of this.

Organized resistance is usually a sign of a deep divide. People will not go to the bother of organizing unless they have serious issues with the change.

Manage collectives by negotiating with their leaders (which can be much easier than dealing with a myriad of smaller fires). You may well need to make concessions, but you at least should be able to rescue some key elements of the change. You can also 'divide and conquer' by striking deals with individual key players, although this must be done very carefully as it can cause a serious backlash.

Visibility of resistance

Sometimes resistance is out in the open, but more often it starts out in a more underhand, covert way.

Covert resistance

Covert resistance is deliberate resistance to change, but done in a manner that allows the perpetrators to appear as if they are not resisting. This may occur, for example, through sabotage of various kinds.

Handle covert resistance by showing that you know what is happening and setting in place investigations designed to identify the people responsible.

Overt resistance

Overt resistance does not try to hide, and is a result either of someone comfortable with their power, someone for whom covert acts are against their values, or someone who is desperate. This may take forms such as open argument, refusal or attack.

Deal with overt resistance by first seeking to respond openly and authentically. If the resistance is blind, then you will have no alternative but to defend, for example by isolating and disciplining attackers.

Activity of resistance

Overt resistance does not need to take positive action -- sometimes it can be passive.

Passive resistance

Passive resistance occurs where people do not take specific actions. At meetings, they will sit quietly and may appear to agree with the change. Their main tool is to refuse to collaborate with the change. In passive aggression, for example, they may agree and then do nothing to fulfill their commitments.

This can be very difficult to address, as resisters have not particularly done anything wrong. One way to address this is to get public commitment to an action (and you can start small on this), then follow up -- publicly if necessary -- to ensure they complete the action. Then keep repeating this until they are either bought in or give in.

Active resistance

Active resistance occurs where people are taking specific and deliberate action to resist the change. It may be overt, with such as public statements and acts of resistance, and it may be covert, such as mobilizing others to create an underground resistance movement.

Overt active resistance, although potentially damaging, is at least visible and you have the option of using formal disciplinary actions (although more positive methods should normally be used first). When it is covert, you may also need to use to covert methods to identify the source and hence take appropriate action.

See also


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