Organisational change is unavoidable, but what enables people to support change, and what leads them to resist it? How do leaders and managers keep employees engaged during a change process? A principle from Gestalt psychology is crucial: don’t pathologize employee resistance.

It’s all too easy to see resistance as the dragon that needs to be slayed. However, as Freud knew well, it’s just what people do when they’re unsure or anxious. It needs to be worked with, not against. It’s a safety mechanism, not an impediment, a force that acts against movement if that movement is perceived as threatening in some way.

This has big implications for leaders who see themselves as change agents. Most actions evoke an opposite reaction: push people into change and they’ll push back. In 1970, Gestalt psychologist Arnold Beissner argued that change was paradoxical: encouraging people to become what they are is what works, not coercing them to become what they aren’t. That means being curious about their instinctive resistance and acknowledging that it holds meaning for them.

Encouraging people to become what they are involves encouraging them to realise their potential, and that potential is probably limitless. Becoming what you are inevitably involves change and growth.

For Gestalt psychologist and organisation development consultant Rick Maurer (a graduate of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland), resistance is the first phase of support. In place of pressure to change, leaders who ensure that the change under consideration is widely understood are more likely to convert resistance into curiosity and interest. If they’re trusted by their employees, they’re more likely to keep them engaged.

A three-level process is involved: the first is cognitive (working to promote understanding), the second involves emotions (the evocation of interest and linking), and the third is interpersonal (trust).

If employees are saying, “I don’t get it, I don’t like it and I don’t like you,” then employee engagement is in jeopardy.

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