Overcoming personal resistance and developing curiosity  - Blog Header Images.jpg

by: Brent Lowe

Resistance to change is a natural human emotion. When we feel overwhelmed and out of routine, we retreat to the comfort of the familiar even if it’s destructive or dysfunctional.

While shifting away from traditional hierarchy may, in theory, be something you and your team buy into on an academic level, people have different change tolerance thresholds when it comes to actually making the shift. Things can quickly get uncomfortable, even for those of us who see ourselves as fearless—or eternal optimists. This is where the instinct-driven lizard brain kicks. Each day we need to re-recognize our resistance and decide to challenge it—to work with it, and learn to dance with it.

Why even progressive leaders resist change

Change is inevitable. It’s not something we should fear but rather embrace and take advantage of. The thing is, often resistance to change is not only about resisting the new. It’s also about self preservation and resisting the loss of what you love—what is familiar.

Enter the lizard brain. It’s the primitive, instinct-driven side of our mind that sees a threat around every corner, and screams “get me outta here” at the slightest whiff of danger. As humans, we’re well versed in avoiding physical or emotional hurt, thanks to our lizard brain. It’s where basic survival instincts and emotions like fear and anger reside. This part of our mind can be so strong that it dominates the rational side when we’re in a high-stress situation.

When you’re battling your own lizard brain, leading others through a personal development process towards self-management is a tall order. Traditional ways are so deeply ingrained that simply suggesting doing things differently can feel like hanging a “make fun of me” sign around your neck. When the deep seated fear of ridicule rises up, is it any wonder that most leaders, even the most progressive ones, have convinced themselves it’s easier to stick with the long-held management paradigm?

Facing resistance and fear by acknowledging and naming emotions

Traditional workplaces have conditioned us to think that acknowledging or processing fear openly is a sign of weakness. We’ve learned to dodge and deny pain instead of confronting it, naming it and working through it.

Naming emotions instead of ignoring them is the starting point for dancing with your resistance.
Take a breather, slow down and figure out what’s really driving your behaviour. It’s an opportunity to dig deep and unearth some hard truths you may need to overcome to move forward.

Developing curiosity and working with organizational resistance

Resistance to change in organizations can offer valuable insight into what is going on in the business. When listening and exploring resistance, notice what’s being said and the needs behind the words. Practice explicitly asking each person what they need.

One of the tools we introduce in Lead Together is a two-by-two check-in matrix. To start, you may want to use it on the screen or on a whiteboard. On the x axis, you have passive and active. So either I’m actively engaged in something or I’m passively engaged in something. On the other axis, you have positive and negative. So either I’m thinking positively about this change right now, or I’m negative on this change right now.

Just having that frame to ask people where they’re at opens up space for finding out where they’re at. Are they actively positive about where we’re going, or are they passively negative about where we’re going? Over time, it becomes a bit of a language that you can use with each other, no judgment. We all move around all four of those quadrants from time-to-time, depending on how much energy we have and what’s going on in our day. That makes it safe to say, “I’m actively negative toward this right now.” That’s ok. 

When resistance is out in the open, we have an opportunity to address our fears, hear each other and make sure colleagues feel heard and understood.


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