“Resistance is part of the job of leadership, it’s not an interruption. If you don’t have resistance, you’re probably not leading.” --Andy Hargreaves
An ongoing challenge that change leaders face is how to deal with inevitable pockets of resistance that threaten to stymie change initiatives and slow progress towards goals. Rather than viewing resistance as a negative, change leaders can find value in an approach that embraces resistance by seeing it as an opportunity to make better sense of change and to sort out what actions are required to achieve it (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 295).
Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols (2016, p.346) note that truly expert change agents understand that individuals in an organization may have limited capacities and that commitment to change is something that takes effort to build. They describe a number of different approaches that change leaders can take to build and reinforce commitment, all of which involve engaging in sense- and meaning-making with regard to the sought after change, either through emotional calls to action in pursuit of a vision or logical explanations of the underlying strategies and systems (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, pp. 349–350). These actions serve to mold perceptions of the change among stakeholders and ensure faculty that efforts are worthwhile and in ultimately in their favor (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 260). In addition to drumming up support, reflective action and questioning practice are characteristics of effective school leadership (Davidson, 2013, p. 9). Resistance can motivate reflection and deeper understanding of the reasons for and ways to achieve change that support its eventual achievement.
In describing sustainable leadership practices, Hargreaves (2007, p. 226) asserts the value of learning from the past and retaining the parts of past practice that have been proven effective. Change leaders should avoid ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater,’ so to speak, and creatively combine the best of what an organization already is with what it is envisioned to become. Systems that support successful change encourage sharing concerns, mutual accountability, and learning across all levels in the organization (Fullan, 2006, p. 119; Harris, 2011). Negative reactions to elements of proposed change initiatives can be useful to make change leaders aware of issues they didn’t initially consider, and engaging in discussion early on in the process of development can help to address them (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 295).
Change can be a traumatic experience for some and provoke responses similar to grief (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 302). Change leaders should exercise patience and focus on problem-solving and addressing resistance as a normal part of the change process and avoid singling out individuals for blame (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 298). Approaching change leadership through collaboration and reflection across all levels in the school can help to ensure that what might have been seen as ‘resistance’ can be viewed as useful critical feedback to strengthen planning and encourage deeper reflection on our goals.
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G., & Ingols, C. (2016). Organizational Change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [Google Books edition]. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=cU0dCAAAQBAJ&pg=GBS.PT282.w.6.0.51
Davidson, D. (2013). Preparing Principals and Developing School Leadership Associations for the 21st Century: Lessons from Around the World. Toronto: Ontario Principals Council.
Fullan, M. (2006). The future of educational change: system thinkers in action. Journal of Educational Change, 7(3), 113–122.
Hargreaves, A. (2007). Sustainable Leadership and Development in Education: creating the future, conserving the past. European Journal of Education, 42(2), 223–233.
Harris, A. (2011). System improvement through collective capacity building. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 49(6), 624–636.
International School Leadership. (2014). Uplifting Leadership [Online video]. International School Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=9V0GaLRmq20
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.