As an anthropologist, I find the idea of resistance fascinating. When I used to teach, one of the books we focused on was Aihwa Ong’s Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia.
In it, she explored the lives of young Malay women in the 1980s who began to work in factories. This kind of work challenged their traditional values:
- Instead of being able to wear traditional loose-fitting clothing and sandals, they were required to wear tight uniforms and big rubber boots.
- They tended to work three hours a day longer than women engaged in more traditional work.
- They worked under male supervision, where previously men and women worked in quite separate spheres.
Because they needed the work, they couldn’t just walk away from it. And so, their resistance took another form: spirit possession. When the women became possessed by spirits, the factories had no choice but to close down for a time and the women had some respite.
This kind of resistance took place a long way away and a long time ago from today’s world of work in London.
Resistance – fascinating but hard work
As a trainer, when I encounter resistance I still find it fascinating, however, it is also hard work.
Just recently, I ran a session on consultation through a redundancy situation. From the moment I walked into the room, the feeling of resistance was thick in the air, and it was aimed at me.
I felt like I was besieged and I was flailing.
Of course I knew it wasn’t about me personally – this was the first time we were meeting. I also knew, based on previous experience, that I could bring these people around, but that it would take some time.
Part of my role as a trainer is to impart information. In some ways, though, that’s just a small part of it.
A much bigger part of the role is to facilitate an environment, to create a space for difficult feelings and to be able to sit with the uncomfortable feelings of others. It’s only by acknowledging these feelings that we can move on to learning.
When I encounter resistance, I know that – just like the Malay women – it’s often a question of people feeling unable to express their fears or upset about the situation they’re going through.
Resistance – whether it takes the form of being passive aggressive, argumentative, or sullenly unresponsive – is the route people take when they feel they can’t say what they really think, something that is quite common in the workplace.
People don’t want to put their head above the parapet, especially in a redundancy situation.
So while it’s difficult to open up the room to a conversation about those feelings, it has to be done. In the session I mentioned above, I didn’t push back initially when people disagreed with me, but rather pushed through.
I listened, tried not to act into the upset, and asked them to say more about how they were feeling and why they felt that way.
Sure enough, after two difficult hours, we broke through. They started talking more freely about their concerns and we were able to move on to talking about what they could do, in a constructive and active way. Instead of being silenced, they were now able to see their own agency. The air was clear.
Staff: the canary in the coalmine?
From the point of view of the company, it’s important that people don’t feel silenced because employees are often the canary in the coalmine: because they are doing the day-to-day work, they might catch something on a strategic level that managers have missed.
In order to feel empowered to speak up, the company has to make it clear to employees that putting their head above the parapet will be viewed positively.
Some tips, then, on what to do when you encounter resistance in a training session:
- Try not to act into it – remember, it’s not personal, you’re just an easy target because you’re a stranger at the front of the room, and people will want to dislodge their uncomfortable feelings by shifting them to you.
- Listen as calmly as you can – try to find the source of the resistance, ask questions to try to understand the difficult feelings.
- I often find myself asking people as they talk, “I wonder what’s behind that?”
- Don’t think that you have to call out all the difficult behaviours, but also know when to call time – you’re not a punching bag, you’re a person with feelings too.
So, what do you do when you encounter resistance at work?