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What Resistors to Change Need You to Know

3 Ways to Rethink Resistance by Elisa B. MacDonald

Why do initiatives fail?


Poor communication, lack of resources, competing priorities, Mercury is retrograde, it's Monday… And the list of rational and irrational excuses goes on.

But there is one reason that most don't think about:


Leaders fail to recognize and respond to the transition people experience

when change is imposed.

I recently came across the Bridges Transition Model 

which explains 3 phases people experience when moving through a transition:

1. Endings. Time to identify what we are losing.

2. Neutral Zone. Time of re-learning filled with creativity, but also uncertainty.

3. New Beginnings. A time to form a fresh identity.

Skillful Team Leaders recognize and address the transition 

people experience when change is imposed.

Here's a move to try…

Instead of describing people who resist change with words such as:

  • "Difficult"

  • "Obstinate"

  • "Inflexible"

  • "Not a team player"

Recognize the transition people are going through.

3 Ways to Rethink Resistance:

  1. Resistors to change are 


about the way things used to be done. 


Letting go can feel like a loss to them. Acknowledge the loss.


Example: Second grade teachers loved a whale unit where kids spent a week building a giant paper-mache whale, but the new curriculum does not leave time to teach it. The instructional coach dedicates time for teachers to share positive memories before moving ahead.


Resistors to change are 


to past leaders who set the original policy or practice. 


Changing the policy or practice might feel like a betrayal to the person they miss.


Example: A beloved former principal had a policy where teachers could send students to his office any time there was any minor behavioral issue in the classroom. The new principal praises the character of the former principal, but not the practice: 


“He was a strong supporter of teachers and had a wonderful way of connecting to students. This policy, however, does not serve in the best interest of students or teachers. Here's the change and how I will support you through this change.”


Resistors to change are 


about implications others might not yet see. 


Adopting this change will solve a problem, but what unforeseen problems might it create?


Ever heard the true story of the Cane Toads? Faced with a terrible beetle population in the 1930's, Australia brought in millions of poisonous cane toads. What they didn't realize is that cane toads have no natural predators. To this day, they are still trying to get rid of the deadly cane toads.  

(Can't help but wonder if they let the naysayers at the time speak up.)


Example: A department has implemented the same grading policy for over 20 years. The department head communicates the disadvantages it perpetuates for traditionally marginalized students and wants to change it, but not everyone is on board. The department head facilitates a Six Thinking Hats protocol (pp. 375-376) to structure talk that carves space for team members to constructively work through problems they foresee and come up with a creative, equitable policy they are ready to implement.


This move is more than semantics. Reframing your view of those who resist will not only help you understand and better connect you to your colleagues, but it will also help you better implement your change initiative!

Explore resistance to change and other important

team leadership topics in my new course,

The Skillful Team Leader Course

Now offering graduate credit!

Learn how to bring the course to your school!

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