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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford


Leadership Thoughts | Issue #109

I recently had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Dr. Michael Snell. He's an outstanding leader who's successfully directed pioneering reform in the school district where he served as Superintendent. It was unsurprising for anyone who knows Dr. Snell that he was named Pennsylvania Superintendent of the Year in 2018. Additionally, he is the author of Clockwork: Timesaving and Testing Strategies for Success. His current role as the Assistant Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Principals Association allows him to share his expertise about leadership in support of school leaders across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

In one of his emails, Michael mentioned that if he were ever to write a book about his experience, the first chapter would be titled Resistance - which I immediately understood why and captured for the title of this edition of Leadership Thoughts. Leaders are constantly confronted with resistance from individuals or groups when they create tension between a compelling vision and the current reality.

What is Resistance?

Newstrom and Davis characterize resistance to change as an action taken by an individual or group to hinder, delay, or reject the introduction of a work-related change. Any verbal, physical, mental, or emotional block created by those affected by the proposed change can be considered resistant to change.

Peter Senge said it well, "People don't resist change; they resist being changed." Resistance continues to be the downfall of many transformational initiatives, sometimes resulting in a leadership change. All leaders should expect to confront resistance from varying sources. Knowing what one encounter is imperative if they are to conquer the opposition.

Types of Resistance

Hayley Buonopane (Harvard Review Course: Change Management 101) states three main types of resistance. However, I would add a fourth type of resistance that often appears in individuals or groups - Behavioral Resistance (Bonus). This type was not part of Hayley’s original list but is something I deem essential.

1) Logical/Rational Resistance

This type of resistance is based on people’s beliefs and attitudes toward the change. It can include skepticism, doubt, or disagreement with the rationale or goals of the change. The resistance often arises when people have different perspectives, experiences, or values and perceive the change as conflicting with their beliefs or interests. Resisters will use logic and science to support their position. Examples of their logic behind the resistance are:

  • time required to adjust,

  • the effort to relearn,

  • the possibility of a less desirable condition,

  • cost of the change,

  • feasibility of the change.

2) Psychological Resistance

This type of resistance is based on people's feelings and emotions toward the change. It can include fear, anxiety, uncertainty, or a sense of loss. Emotional resistance may arise because people feel like they're losing something familiar or comfortable about the unknown future. This type of resistance can be challenging to overcome because it's not always rational or logical, and it can be challenging to address people's emotional concerns. It is difficult for leaders to understand psychological resistance, for there often appears to be no justification for the feelings, but they are real for the resisters. These feelings often become evident in the following way.

  • lack of trust,

  • desire to maintain the status quo,

  • fear of the unknown,

  • low tolerance for change,

  • personality conflicts.

3) Sociological Resistance

The most challenging type of resistance is sociological, when individuals perceive the change as threatening their group's interests. The desire to preserve the status quo and continue with harmonious cohesion tends to be stronger than any real or perceived benefits of implementation. People within an organization will typically form formal and informal groups, conforming to the team's culture and values and building strong relationships based on trust between members. This creates a perfect situation for groupthink to occur. Breaking down the barriers caused by sociological resistance requires great patience and persistence from a leader. Examples of such resistance include:

  • political conditions,

  • vested interest,

  • opposing group values,

  • a limiting vision of the future,

  • putting the group's relationships over the organizational vision.

4) Behavioral Resistance (Bonus)

This form of resistance is based on people's attitudes and actions toward the changes in their lives. It can take the shape of passive avoidance, where individuals pick and choose what to accept or reject, or active opposition, when actively fighting against the new idea. Behavioral resistance usually crops up because people lack the resources or knowledge to make it happen or simply find the adjustment too inconvenient. To combat it, you need to give training, provide coaching and assistance, and involve them in planning and executing the change.

Whenever leaders pursue a transformational change, they will inevitably face opposition. Such resistance can damage the organization and its relationships, so wise leaders should plan to address it quickly and effectively. Leaders who understand the challenges of leading such changes and equip themselves with the knowledge and skills necessary to manage transformation have a higher chance of success.

Consider the courses listed on the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center website to learn more about leading change. You can also contact me directly for more information.

  • Leading Change: This course strives to give leaders the skills to understand why most educational change attempts fail and how to create sustainable, successful organizational change. Participants can exchange their experiences, gain new insights, and apply suitable leadership tactics.

  • Leading District-Wide Continuous Improvement: Leaders and leadership teams learn from pioneers of transformational change in education to change their thinking and behavior to advance continuous improvement in their contexts.


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