Welcome to this 3-part article on managing resistance in consulting projects. This Part 1 describes resistance and how to recognize it. Part 2 will describe how to deal with resistance from your client. Part 3 will describe how to deal with your own resistance as a consultant.
What is Resistance? What Causes it?
An important skill for you to have as an organizational consultant is to effectively recognize and address resistance from clients. This is true whether you are an external or internal consultant. Resistance in a consulting project is when your client (a person or a group in the organization) reacts against recommendations from you or against changes in the organization that seem threatening to them.
Resistance is quite common in consulting projects that focus on changing a significant part or process in the organization. After all, the way your client’s organization has been operating in the past is because one or more people felt strongly that their organization should be operating that way (even though that way they were operating may have caused their problems and is actually what needs to be changed). Thus, any perceived change in their organization can be threatening to them.
Direct and Indirect Resistance
The resistance can be direct or indirect. Direct resistance is your client’s authentic (direct, honest and open) expression about the perceived threat and why they are not going to follow the recommendations or support the change. Indirect resistance is when your client does not authentically admit their concern and, instead, does not cooperate with you. Usually, resistance is indirect and, therefore, can be difficult for you and your client to effectively address.
How to Recognize Another Individual’s Indirect Resistance
Peter Block, in his book Flawless Consulting, provides elegant advice about how to deal with resistance. The first step is to recognize the resistance. Indirect resistance, in consulting projects, can be occurring when:
- Your client does not return your calls.
- Your client continues to question the same piece of advice, even after you have repeated your answer several times.
- Your client tells you that they will have to think about your advice, then takes a few weeks to think about it, and still does not come to a conclusion.
- Your client postpones meetings with you.
- Your client suddenly calls you on the phone to say, “Everything’s fine now. You do not need to come back. We’ll send you your check. Goodbye.”
If you do not see resistance, look again. Resistance is useful because it tells you that your client perceives that something must change soon or is already changing. If there is no resistance at any time during your project, it might be that the project is not really addressing the root cause of issues in your client’s organization — or it may be that your own resistance is blinding you to the reality in your consulting project.
What are some other forms of resistance from clients? Are you experiencing any with your clients now? What are you doing about it?
In Part 2, we will describe how to deal with resistance from your client. In Part 3, we will describe how to deal with your own resistance as a consultant.
Information in this post was adapted from the book Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD. For training on consulting skills, see the Consultants Development Institute.