Overcoming Resistance to Change

These days, leaders who are asked to participate in EQ workshops are far less resistant to the idea of EQ than they were when I started the EQ Leader Program in 2004. The value of EQ has become largely accepted by most leaders in the executive ranks, though in truth, many people want “that other guy” to get some EQ, conveniently overlooking their own gaps. I bet you have stories to tell that would back this up!

No matter how brilliant coaches, trainers, and development programs may be, participants will resist the changes requested. They will resist them even when they want to change. This blog post talks about some ways to partner with participants to overcome that resistance. 

Resistance is a part of every learning process. Don’t take it personally. It’s just the way we human beings are. Plan for it. You may even feel some resistance as you read this post.

While today it is relatively easy to get leaders into an introductory EQ workshop, that’s not the ultimate goal. We need to win their engagement in the process of building their own EQ skills. Among other things, that means overcoming some predictable forms of resistance.

One common resistance arises out of the fear of emotions themselves. Such fear is seen in many cultures. Helping your participants understand the value and function of emotion goes a long way toward winning their engagement. Information is an antidote to fear. 

Here’s a start: “Motivation” is a meaningful word for the people who fill leadership ranks. If you link motivation and emotion, you will have gained significant ground. Fortunately, it is easy to do. 

Motivation, emotion, and motion all come from the Latin root “mot,” which means “move.” Emotions move us to do something. If we are not moved, we do nothing.

Second, people are resistant to emotions because they are afraid that emotions will be disruptive. It’s true. Emotions can be disruptive, and all of us have at least some experiences that show that. Our task is to help participants see the other side, the ways in which emotions can be facilitative. For example, a robotic leader, an automaton, is not an inspiring leader. Appropriately expressed passion for a goal inspires passion (and motivation) in followers. Genuine appreciation for a job well done helps sustain passion and motivation.

Third, emotions are critical to decision making, something that executives have to do every day. Daniel Goleman, in his ground breaking first book on EQ, tells the story of a brilliant attorney who developed brain cancer.  Fortunately, his surgeon was able to remove the cancer. Not so fortunately, the operation left the attorney without access to his emotions. He was still brilliant, able to argue every side of any issue. But he couldn’t make a decision. Why? Decisions require that we care about one thing more than other things. Because this attorney no longer knew what mattered to him, he couldn’t tip the scales. 

Here’s a useful workshop exercise: Tell the lawyer story. Then say: “Think about a major decision that you made. You probably analyzed the pros and cons of each option carefully. Now notice which factors mattered to you, the ones that were more important than others. How did they guide your decision making? Without knowing what you care about, decisions become arbitrary, and often wrong.” This exercise helps people see for themselves how emotions can help enable their success, or, where people are unaware of their emotions, trip them up. Emotional Self Awareness is an essential skill!

Finally, as we mentioned in Blog Post #4, attention to thoughts and feelings are indispensable to behavior change. The behavior you see is driven both by the way that person thinks and by the emotions they bring to a situation. Learning more about emotions, rather than denying them, can lead to better outcomes. Decision making and behavior change are both served by emotions that fit the task, which can be encouraged by thinking about a situation in new ways. 

Albert Einstein, a guy whose intellect wasn’t too shabby, once said: “We should take care not to make the intellect our god. It has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead. It can only serve.”

So educating people about emotions is a start to overcoming resistance. But it’s not enough.

People who have risen to the executive ranks often feel that, “if I ain’t broke, don’t fix me.” They are often afraid to fiddle with the formula that got them where they are. They prefer to believe that if something isn’t working, it’s somebody else’s fault, or the fault of the system. Their fear leads to resistance. The antidote to this fear is hope, hope for an even stronger performance based on integrating emotions into their strong intellect.

And finally, which may surprise you, the people around your clients who want your clients to change will throw roadblocks up to discourage the change they say they want. That’s because when your client changes, the people around your client will have to change in response. Warn your clients about this phenomenon, letting them know not to take it personally.

So resistance is natural, it’s everywhere, and it can throw a monkey wrench into your efforts. It’s a pretty important topic to consider. Having some plans in place to deal with it before you start is good defense. 

This blog is growing a community of professionals responsible for helping leaders grow and learn. Help us all out by sharing your own stories of client resistance, and, if you can, share strategies of overcoming resistance that you have used. Or share where you’ve been stuck. Maybe our community will have ideas that will help.

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