In the September 2011 issue of Training Journal, I describe how I developed the Onion Model that is at the centre of The Handling Resistance Pocketbook. Here is that article.

Creating the Onion Model - an article by Mike Clayton

Models are the way that human beings understand our world, and everything we experience. We are constantly building models to explain what we observe, or to predict what we will observe next. Every rule, law, theory, hypothesis, generalisation or process that we make or follow is a model.

Model making is also one part of the way that science evolves, whether it is a hard, mathematical science, like physics or chemistry, or a soft, human science, like sociology or management. In all cases, practitioners observe, build models and then test them against new observations, looking for points of failure that will lead to new insights. Philosophers build models too. Indeed, they were the first scientists and some continue to test their models robustly, albeit using different methods.

Creating a model is a natural human endeavour, so building the Onion Model came easily, as a human being and as a scientist. It is a way to systematise what I have observed, it supports prediction of what my clients and audiences will experience and, perhaps most important to me as a trainer and communicator, it helps me to discuss ideas with other people.

Developing the Onion Model

When we resist change, or reject a new idea, or push back against a sales pitch, or even – dare I say it – become resistant in a training event, we do so for a reason. There are infinitely many reasons, but the Pareto Principle leads us to expect that most instances will be down to variations on a few common reasons. Experience supports this expectation. The model builder must find these common reasons, to accommodate as much experience as possible within the simplest of frameworks.

So my starting point was to list all of the possible reasons I could think of, from my own experience, knowledge and imagination. Grouping these allowed me to identify the fundamental forms of resistance although some come in a few different flavours. Of course, even this description is a simplification and, in truth, the model evolved over a number of years; but more of that later.

The next step is to derive a metaphor that neatly expresses the relationship between the fundamental forms of resistance. Most models use either a mathematical, linguistic or visual metaphor.

I rapidly rejected the idea of a mathematical model. They are often used to give a deceptive sense of scientific rigor which my model does not have. I was also aware that Victor Vroom first expressed his Expectancy Model[1,2] of motivation as an equation and later regretted it. The result is that one of the simplest, best and most useful management models is little known among managers, whilst the weak and less useful Hierarchy of Needs model[3] that Abraham Maslow articulated, and that lends itself easily to a simple visual metaphor (most often, a pyramid), is widely known and cited.

For the Onion Model, the result of trial and error was a visual and physical metaphor. I knew the different forms of resistance could be arranged in a sequence that represents a typical escalation in resistance. I also wanted to convey the impression that, as resistance escalates, it gets harder to deal with; or �hotter�. Having rejected a simple hierarchy, I hit on the metaphor of an onion:

  • Onions are made up of layers
  • As you peel off one layer, there is another beneath
  • Each layer is more intense, more powerful and hotter than the last
  • Onions sometimes make you cry

This seemed to me to be an apposite metaphor both physically and visually (concentric layers). The concentric rings image also has the merit of being less widely used than others, like the iceberg, ladder or pyramid.

Creating the Original Model

I originally developed the Onion Model as a way of discussing resistance to change in my consulting, training and seminars. It was well received and evolved over time, reaching its current form in around 2005. It has withstood a lot of scrutiny.

The original inspiration was a seminar I attended in the late 1990s, led by Rick Maurer[4]. I made a note at that seminar that there are three levels of resistance to change:

Level 1: Informational Resistance

Level 2: Emotional Resistance

Level 3: Exceptional Resistance

These are my words; not Rick’s, but they captured what I understood to be the essence of his argument. I am also unsure whether he intended to prescribe a sequence to them. As I worked with clients, observed change, and discussed these ideas, I started to understand these levels better and to split them into different cases. I re-labelled them and looked for patterns and commonalities. My understanding grew and I became clearer in the way I was able to articulate that understanding. I slowly developed a mature five-layer Onion Model.

I also developed a standard set of labels for the layers of the onion that wholly eschewed jargon, technical language and pseudo-science. I wanted a language that is really simple, so I decided to label each layer with the examples I was giving to illustrate them: the typical thing that you might hear a resister say. So, finally, here were my five layers.


It was working with one particular client where there were serious flaws in the management, that led me to the final, sixth layer, at the core of the onion: ‘I like to resist’. I recognised that resistance is the default behaviour of some people and thus, the final component of the model slotted into place. It was on a Transactional Analysis course where I was able to discuss this with an expert and learn more about its origins and nature of this behaviour.

From one Model to many

It was around 2004 when …

Continued tomorrow



  1. Super Models, Training Journal, August 2008 (Vroom)
  2. The Management Models Pocketbook, Mike Clayton
  3. Super Models, Training Journal, June 2008 (Maslow)
  4. See, for example, Beyond the Wall of Resistance, Rick Maurer, Bard Press (2010)

To get pdf copies of the two Training Journal articles on Vroom’s Expectancy Theory and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, sign up to my newsletter here, and I will email them to you.

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