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How project managers should deal with resistance

Adeline Teoh ed.
May 30, 2014

Resistance to the change a project brings is often seen as an obstacle, but could it actually be a way to find alternative paths to success?

Rule 1 of Twitter: Never get into a religious or political argument. The character limit and the effort are just not worth it.

I almost broke this rule the other day when I attended a writers’ festival session featuring religious scholar and author Reza Aslan talking about his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I tweeted some of his remarks and unwittingly found myself in the crosshairs of an incensed ‘lifelong Christian’ who was spoiling for an ‘I know the Bible better than you’ stoush*.

I stopped right there. It was not my argument to have, mostly because it started when I quoted someone else, but also because I’ve never read the Bible. Aslan copped a lot of flak for the book (most memorably on Fox News), largely because he identifies as Muslim after converting from evangelical Christianity, but also due to a perceived lack of historical rigour.

My view is that Aslan, a low-level scholar, wrote very readable ‘pop’ history book on a beloved figure. The book contains numerous points of contention—but so do many other books in the genre. Why did Aslan receive death threats? Because some people felt that he was attacking their faith and, by association, their identity as a Christian.

As project managers and team leaders, we need to be wary of this effect when we are dealing with team members and other stakeholders. I don’t mean in a strictly religious, political or cultural sense, but simply finding the points of resistance that may hinder the project and separating them from the personal. Just as you are never going to get an environmentalist working in a coal mine, you simply won’t be able to motivate someone if the change you’re making conflicts with their personal ideology.

So how do we do this? Change managers often talk of resistance to change being one of the biggest challenges to overcome in any project. The first part is to identify the points of resistance and try to elicit disagreement. Transparency will allow you to see the obstacles to change.

The second part is to take a hybrid free will/deterministic approach where, effectively, the goal is determined but the path to get there is open to the stakeholder. As Peter Bregman wrote for Harvard Business Review, “people don’t resist change, they resist being changed”. The biggest trick you can pull on this front is not to control people but control the paths along which they can travel. On a project, the paths must all lead to the desired outcomes.

How do you deal with resistance to change?

* By the way, I’m not attacking faith by including this so please don’t start a religious argument with me.

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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