The three resistance levels (detailed)

Employees and leaders often feel like being in a constant loop of change: the next change happens before the previous one has been fully implemented and anchored. Some changes are done well, some are poorly managed. Sounds familiar?

As human beings we naturally react to anything given. Hence, we also react to change. Sometimes, employees support the change from the start. More often though, employees express their reaction to change in form of resistance.

Rick Maurer defined three levels of resistance.

  • Level 1: “I don’t get it.” This reaction in form of resistance is caused by the need to receive facts & figures as well as background information to understand the change.
  • Level 2: “I don’t like it.” This reaction is caused by discomfort or a feeling of overwhelm. It has often to do with a concern about a loss of control or security.
  • Level 3: “I don’t like you.” This reaction can be rooted in a history of mistrust or caused by a disagreement in values. Addressing this level of resistance may require to repair burned bridges and building (new) relationships.  

Level 1 / I simply don’t get it!

I simply don’t get it! How often have you heard that phrase when in a change project?

If you do not provide information about the Why, How or What of a change, employees will react by going into resistance.

It may sound easy enough to get people out of this resistance: Feed their need for information. However, it is not up to you as a leader but to the individual to decide how detailed or how many information they need.

Some ideas:

  • First things first: Make sure the why is understood. If teams understand the purpose of the change, they will support it more easily.
  • Keep it short and sweet: Simplify your message, shorten presentations or e-mails. The key information comes first.
  • Repeat: Employees may not fully understand or listen the first, second or third time. Repeat the message. Often.
  • Use various methods to present your case, e.g. personal comms, visuals, audio, written forms. People absorb information differently.
  • Be present: Offer Q&A sessions, walk the talk, engage with employees, and be open and accessible.

Level 2 / „I don’t like this change!“

“I don’t like this change!” Well. Do employees ever like a change? However, this reaction should trigger much more attention & reaction than the previous question.

An emotional reaction to change makes it difficult for people to listen and puts them rather into survival mode.

Key will be to remove as much fear as possible by creating reassurance, by getting employees involved and/or by being very honest about the change (especially if the change involves redundancies or the likes).

Some ideas:

  • Invite representatives from key internal stakeholders to a meeting. On your proposals, ask them what they like & don’t like about it and what they would add/change. Allow time for (difficult) conversations. Don’t speed things up.
  • Keep promises made and be reliable. But also be honest about items that are not negotiable (and tell employees why).
  • Go on „listening tours“ and learn. Don’t defend ideas but be open to listen how people feel.
  • Create feedback loops so that employees feel safe to address any of their concerns or feelings.

Level 3 / „I don’t like you!“

„I don’t like you!“ Ouch. This is the least desirable reaction to you as leader in a change process.

This 3rd level of resistance is based on distrust or dislike of people presenting a change.

Key will be to mend damaged relationships and to slowly rebuild trust. The issue of trust is quite often the biggest stumbling block. (Re)Build trust before you need it. If employees trust their leaders, they will keep listening.

Some ideas to slowly (re)build trust:

  • Make the first move and take small steps: Sit down with employees again and again – ideally before the change. Listen to any concerns, be approachable, be patient. Don’t judge, don’t push, take your time. Discuss any issues of interest to both parties. Share, listen and learn.
  • Keep commitments: Keep your word and promises made. Act consistently and be reliable. Say what you do and do what you say.
  • Mea culpa: Take responsibility for the things that may have led to these tense relations. Be humble.

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