Resistance to Engagement in the August 2011 Training JournalIn yesterday’s post, Part 1, we started looking at resistance to engagement, by looking at the basics of the onion model and then peeling the first layer: “I don’t understand why you want me to engage with you.”

In this second part, we complete our analysis.

�I don�t understand how to engage with you�

The first component of this really means �I don�t understand what engagement means�.� The word �engagement� is totally abstract.� Whilst the training, development and HR community have come to a fairly uniform understanding of it, to many people it is just another piece of management jargon.� You must be prepared to explain engagement in concrete terms.

My �seven year-old� test applies.� Try out your explanation on a seven year-old.� If they understand you, then you have a good explanation: if not, try again.� I am not for one moment asserting that you should treat colleagues like seven year-olds; still less that they are like them.� But if you can hone your own understanding to that level of clarity, then it will really make sense.

I said above that we have come to a �fairly uniform understanding� of the term in our community, but it does vary in precise interpretation from practitioner to practitioner and, more important, from context to context.�

But defining engagement is only the start.� To make the meaning really concrete and to answer the �how� question, you must also tell me what I need to do to engage with our organisation, and what I can expect it will do to engage with me.

�I don�t like what you want me to do to engage with you�

Now the next layer is exposed.� I don�t like what you want me to do �or maybe what you propose to do.� At its most fundamental level, this resistance reminds us of Douglas McGregor.� He introduced two models of management that he called Theory X and Theory Y[1].� In a nutshell, Theory X management assumes that people work only for money.� They don�t want to do any more than they are told to do and won�t want to think for themselves.� Theory Y, on the other hand, assumes people can enjoy their work and find it fulfilling.� So Theory Y managers should give their people opportunities to take the initiative and do their best.

McGregor rejected Theory X in favour of Theory Y.� Later, Wiliam Ouchi developed a third model, Theory Z.� Developing Theory Y in the direction of the modern Japanese management practices, Ouchi created a model with many aspects of what we now call engagement: collective responsibility; implicit, informal control; and collective decision-making.

The problem is that some people want Theory X management; they don�t want to think innovatively, to stretch themselves, or to engage. This is not to say that they couldn�t, or even that they wouldn�t, if given the right opportunities and motivation; but where their thinking is, here and now, some people would rather come to work, do as they are told, get paid, and go home. And is there really anything wrong with this?� If you are reading this article, you will certainly find it hard to empathise, and you almost certainly reject any assertions that this is either the best for them; or an inevitable and un-alterable state of affairs.� But it is a source of �I don�t like what you want me to do.�

The solution, if I don�t like what you want me to do, depends on what you are asking of me.� If you showed me the benefits of engagement at the first layer, then I am almost certainly failing to link what you want me to do to those benefits.� So there are two possibilities:

  1. You need to link what you want me to give more explicitly to what you assert I will get.� You also need to show me how much time it will take up and why it will be a good use of that time.
  2. There really is a mismatch and you need to understand my concerns and re-think your proposition.

�I am scared to engage with you�

Changing the way I behave so that I can engage with you is risky.� I need to do things differently and I may either not feel able to make that change or, worse, I may believe that I never will be able to.

In the first instance, you need to allay my fears of failure by supporting me with advice, guidance, training, and any other interventions you can identify.� Be clear, as with any learning support, that you understand precisely what my needs are and don�t make assumptions based on what your needs are, or my colleagues� needs.

The second case is harder to deal with.� Self-doubt and, worse, limiting beliefs that I am unable to make the change, can go deep.� You will need to undermine these limiting beliefs with counter-evidence and positive reinforcement of the smallest progress.� This is difficult, but it gets tougher�

�I don�t want to engage with you�

This is not usually personal to you but rather reflects something that you represent to me: management, control, the organisation, society.� Maybe I am feeling stressed and I just want to be difficult.� This animosity is a reaction against something, but rarely against the engagement initiative itself.

You will know from the person concerned and their track record if there is any cynicism that you need to deal with � for example if the organisation has broken trust with them or mistreated them in some way in the past.� You need to show that you are different from previous people they have dealt with and demonstrate how things have changed, meaning that worthwhile engagement is possible.� If necessary, put right any mistakes.

It is, of course, possible that this attitude reflects a desire to misbehave; to cause trouble and resist for the sake of it.� If you suspect that this is the case, then you should be on the lookout for other forms of inappropriate behaviours that are sabotaging the workplace, and deal with them according to good practices and your internal procedures.

The Centre of the Onion

There is one more layer to examine.� Right at the heart of the onion is a final layer, arising not from the situation, but from how we are wired.

The Onion Model of Resistance to Engagement: the last layer

Some people don�t want to engage at all.� Their resistance comes fundamentally from a life perspective.� Maybe they can�t be bothered: they want something for nothing from their employer.� Maybe they don�t esteem your organisation worthy of their engagement � they are too good for you.� Or maybe the opposite is true, and they don�t feel worthy enough and so feel that they don�t deserve to get what is on offer, even if they were to give everything.� So they shy away from an equal partnership with the organisation.� All of these responses need far deeper levels of insight to address.� With these cases, you may need to accept defeat or call in specialist assistance, because the skills for addressing deep psychological states like these are beyond most workplace practitioners.

How to Peel the Onion

In dealing with resistance, two rules apply:

Onion Rule Number 1:
Always address the resistance at the level at which it is expressed.

There are two reasons for this: first, even if you suspect that there is something deeper going on, it is only respectful to take people at their word from the outset.� Second, even if there is something deeper going on � like they are scared to engage with you – they may also genuinely not understand how to engage.� Unless you deal with this, you will not make progress.� So:

Onion Rule Number 2:
Peel the onion one layer at a time.

No guarantees

The Onion Model does not give all of the answers and the techniques here are only the start.� But even with all of the tools in the world, people vary infinitely.� There are no guarantees.� But, by understanding the source of the resistance you encounter, by treating your resisters with respect, and by working systematically through the layers, you give yourself the best chance of handling the resistance effectively and implementing a successful engagement programme.� Good luck.

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[1]�I will even send you a free article I wrote for Training Journal on Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

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