It’s not resistance

the refusal to accept or comply with something.
synonyms: opposition to, hostility to, aversion to, refusal to accept, unwillingness to accept, disinclination to accept, reluctance to accept, lack of enthusiasm for

This isn’t a post on re-branding.

It doesn’t suggest cosmetic updates.

It doesn’t search for a new buzzword.

It recommends a rethink on how you currently perceive resistance, or on how you’ve been taught to perceive resistance.

Most transformation frameworks see resistance as inevitable: an emotional reaction that materialises only when something needs to change. When we need to invent a new phenomenon to explain observations we should always be cautious, and resistance to change is no exception.

Simpler, perhaps, is to understand resistance as motivation for another outcome. That might be a competing system, a personal dream, the status quo.

It’s tempting to try and identify a model of common needs that drive motivation, then to tick boxes by demonstrating our product fulfilling these. Unfortunately, though popular these models do not stand up well to scrutiny – Maslow, for instance, keeps popping up on LinkedIn posts – which leaves us unsure on how to motivate people to pursue our proposed change to an automated future.


Don’t panic, there is help.

We may not be able to identify a common set of needs, but we can identify a common process people use to assess the effort they are prepared to exert towards a goal.

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory (click here for a primer) suggests that we can understand the motivational force for an outcome as:

Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence

Although projects address these in part, the perception of resistance as an independent force set against change hinders our ability to fully motivate. Lets see:


For most transformations a large amount of effort is expended attempting to reframe the future state as desirable or identify aspects that are positive and focus on these, attaching valence to our desired solution. Trouble surfaces if we persist in trying to portray the future state as universally appealing, expecting people to be content with taking one for the team as part of the greater good when there is clearly no good news for them. And when this doesn’t sit well? Apparently that’s “resistance”.

Expectancy theory encourages us to recognise that the envisaged future state may never be a sufficiently desirable to motivate. That the shiny bright world of workflows, processes and data sharing just doesn’t tick some boxes. In these cases we need to stop trying to put lipstick on the pig, and instead define the future state as a performance goal which unlocks an outcome they do desire. If this sounds like utilitarian behavioural “reinforcement”, it’s not, it’s helping to connect people to naturally desired outcomes through their actions, not bribing people to accept the change.



Conventional change management tells us to show early wins to motivate, but this is insufficient. We need to understand that only showing progress towards the future state does not reassure stakeholders. We need to tell the story of what happened after the goal, where the stakeholder received their desired outcome, if we are to establish instrumentality to motivate.



A combination of self-efficacy perception, perceived control and perceived goal difficulty, which is also only half addressed. Training and knowledge transfer increase perception of self-efficacy, provided they are well designed through a rigorous understanding of current and goal states, in particular addressing perception of capability in the new state, not just the required skills.

Addressing perceived control is problematic in many initiatives where actions are taken which actively weaken this perception: decisions behind closed doors, yet another burning platform, teams of external consultants, no real engagement to discover what a user’s business actually needs, etc. In the effort to demonstrate control and pace the tendency is to present a fait-accompli which cannot be negotiated or affected.

Goal difficulty requires balance. It would be flippant were the CEO to describe a transformation as child’s play, but the temptation to dramatise the project as incredibly complex negatively affects an individual’s confidence in achieving.


Simple actions

By understanding resistance as motivation in motion, we can identify key additional actions:


  • Establish outcomes that have valence for the target, don’t try to put lipstick on the pig if there is no fit between the change goals and the individual.
  • Demonstrate reliable instrumentality from quick wins to desirable outcomes. Celebrate the prizes that resonate, not just the achievement.
  • Ensure the user-groups feel they can control their fate to some extent, don’t present railroading solutions; actually engage the user-group from the start.
  • Do not overplay complexity, repeat often your confidence in the ability to achieve.
  • Avoid relying on a behavioural approach to motivation. People will see through utilitarian bribes. Not everyone is going to like the solution developed.
  • Understand that some people will be motivated enough by the rewards resultant from preserving the status-quo to put in effort to do so.
  • Your biggest mistake is to assume that people are resisting because they don’t “get it” or are nervous about technology. Anyone expending effort is motivated to do so


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