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So you’ve decided your organization will move away from operating as a traditional hierarchy? Instead you will all embrace the philosophies of leading together – also known as self-organizing, decentralized leadership or Teal.

Imagine your organization as a large canoe. Every member of your team sits in this canoe with you. As you look around your boat, you see long-term colleagues, close friends and new faces. Your board members and advisors are in the boat too. Everyone has a paddle. To get to your desired lead together culture, you need to travel in the downstream direction. You point the canoe and ask everyone to paddle.

Reaching the first large rapid, how many begin paddling hard back up stream? What do you do with your paddle?

The resistance has begun.

 The voyage to self-organizing is a river filled with emotion. Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations, puts a finer point on the shift:

“If it comes from the head only, it never works. There is always a counter-argument from someone resisting change.”

The desire to keep paddling down steam – the willingness to embrace change – needs to come from personal stories and life experiences that spur us to explore something new, different and better.

Those working within lead together organizations often speak of their cultures as offering freedom and requiring responsibility. There is inherently more freedom in these teams. With that freedom comes a need for everyone to accept more responsibility. A simple concept on the surface, embracing freedom AND responsibility is fraught with emotional triggers. To conclude the canoe analogy for now, we all enjoy freedom and many will commit to increased responsibility too. It’s not until we reach the proverbial rapids where taking responsibility means placing trust in others, having difficult conversations when we find ourselves disappointed, or making tough decisions and dealing with the consequences. When we find ourselves in the rapids, paddling back upstream often becomes an easy choice.

When you find yourself – or others on your team – wanting to paddle back upstream, experiment with the following.


Acknowledge the resistance

Fear is a powerful motivator that sneaks up on us. Before we know it, our reptilian brain – the most primitive part of our brain – kicks in with a fight, flight or freeze response. To reverse our body’s automatic resistance mechanism we need to acknowledge that it has been triggered. For example, let’s say my colleague Renata fails to deliver on the responsibilities associated with her role. In a traditional organization, I might choose to talk to Renata’s manager. In a lead together organization, there are no managers and I am responsible for speaking directly to Renata. My reptilian brain immediately kicks in. My first response is to lash out at Renata (fight), ignore the failed responsibility (flight) or become stuck and unsure of how to proceed (freeze). Acknowledging our own resistance – and helping others acknowledge theirs – is step number one. “Ah, I see what’s happening here.”


Honour the resistance

Our reptilian brain exists to protect us, and protect us it does. We would not survive without it. Rather than thinking of personal or team resistance as something to be overcome, be curious and work with it. Resistance offers valuable insights into what is going on. Be grateful for the information and conscious in how you respond. “Thank you resistance for aiming to protect me. I’m fine now and no longer need your help here.”


Examine beliefs

When and how our reptilian brain kicks in depends on our underlying beliefs. We all tell ourselves stories. Those stories come from beliefs often so deeply held that they are invisible to us. If we believe that individuals are selfish, we will resist moving towards a lead together way-of-working where everyone has the opportunity to lead. Our fight, flight or freeze response will show up every time a colleague makes a decision. We’ll assume they’re putting themselves first. Each time you encounter resistance, aim to figure out the underlying belief you are holding or unmet need you have. “What belief do I have that’s triggering this resistance?”


Value the growth opportunity

Like all of us, Edwin Jansen from the Ian Martin Group – a self-organizing company – is no stranger to inner resistance. In his words, “I’ve experienced tremendous growth when I uncover and explore the things I’m most deeply afraid of. I look for feedback, and then notice when I’m emotionally triggered or defensive at hearing how I could be better. Then I ask myself, ‘What am I afraid of?’ And try to find the courage for vulnerable action.” Deep personal growth requires a level of discomfort that comes from pushing beyond resistance. “I feel the pain and am going to move forward anyway.”


Ask the hard questions

Sometimes the resistance is more than an individual is willing to face. If our team commits to leading together and members of the team continue trying to paddle upstream, the time will come to ask the hard questions. When organizational cultures change, these new ways-of-working might not be best for everyone and that’s OK. When a strong resister stays in the canoe, not only is the canoe slowed but it’s at risk of capsizing. “Is this the right place for you? Can you be happy and fulfilled here? Are you ready, willing and able to face the resistance that leading together is requiring of you?”


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