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Q: I work with clients in many industries but a characteristic of large, high-tech organizations I’ve found especially difficult to understand. One client, in particular, is among the leading innovators in the field—almost always first-to-market with the very latest next-gen product, and among the top 10 “Best Places to Work” employers. And yet, at every turn, I find its leaders inordinately resistant to change. They understand the need for flexibility and risk-taking when it comes to R&D, for example, but when it comes to leadership development and team building some really dig in their heels. How do I help them overcome that resistance?

A: I understand how “Best Places to Work” status, market leadership, and innovation might seem inconsistent with resistance—especially in high-tech firms, which we often think of as exemplars of innovation. We don’t expect companies that produce products like wine to be fast. We do, however, expect software companies and high-tech firms that are supposed to be at the leading edge to be quick and nimble. Unfortunately, organizational issues and resistance are always in play regardless of products or services delivered. In fact, I would suggest that the proper mixture of resistance, conflict, and vision are actually key ingredients in innovation and market leadership rather than hindrances.

From my own experience, I saw first-hand just the kind of leader behavior you describe during the 20 years I worked at AT&T in diverse management roles. Within its first 100 years as a corporation, AT&T averaged one patent-a-day for such “world altering” innovations as the transistor, the laser, and cell phone communication. Eight Nobel prizes have been awarded for work completed at AT&T Bell Laboratories. And yet, despite all of the amazing innovation, AT&T had a well-deserved reputation for resistance and lack of responsiveness to customers. They resisted change to their business model and changes to their employment policies. At times, they even resisted adopting their own new products and services! And finally, they resisted cooperating with the FCC to open up markets to new competitors. (Why would any business voluntarily give up its monopoly status or voluntarily surrender its ability to provide lifetime employment?) As business history shows, it took an Anti-Trust Act to create the change requested by AT&T’s customers and demanded by the Federal Government.

Like AT&T in the past, many organizations today—and their people—resist change because keeping the “status quo” is a powerful motivator. As biological beings we are wired to maintain physiological and psychological homeostasis. (Stasis , originating in Greek, means to “stand still”). And that’s why getting others to want to change, to want to move forward, is such a critical role for anyone who is willing to accept the challenge to lead.

To get ourselves moving forward—and to help others move forward as well—we need to understand and accept a compelling reason to disrupt our equilibrium. To my way of thinking, we will be better served if we accept that resistance is always present in some form—in each of us as individuals, in our organizations—and focus our coaching and organization development efforts on helping our clients identify resistance and support the creation of a compelling shared vision. Here are a few suggestions to start:
  1. Because all change starts with self-awareness, I suggest that you begin by helping your clients assess the frequency of their leadership behavior that is accelerating or getting in the way of the desired change. The LPI 360® is my favorite tool to enhance self-awareness and identify ways to increase the frequency of important leadership behaviors. 
  2. Read Rick Maurer’s Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Rick has done a phenomenal job of reducing resistance complexity into bite-sized actionable steps. 
  3. Introduce your clients to John Kotter’s eight-step change leadership process described in his book, Leading Change. Pay special attention to his idea of a “dual operating system”. His keen insight can help clients increase the probability of sustainable positive change while creating an organizational capacity to convert resistance into a desired outcome. 
  4. Last—but most essential—I recommend The Leadership Challenge and The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® model as your foundational “operating system” for organization change to serve as an antidote to what Rick Maurer sees as the root of resistance to change: a reaction to the way a change is being led. 
I encourage you to help your clients create a common language around change and resistance. Help them adopt a proven process for change and, most importantly, develop exemplary leadership capacity. When organizations see how leadership and team development can positively impact business outcomes you will see resistance replaced with active support.


Bruce Leamon, M.A. is President of Leamon Group, Inc. and a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge. An ICF Master Certified Executive Coach, MCC, with 20+ years of executive experience with a Fortune 100 technology corporation, he has worked extensively facilitating complex corporate alliances, transforming teams, and developing both individuals and organizations with measurable results. He can be reached at bruce@leamongroup.com.

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