In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the phenomenon of resistance and sabotage — why this is part and parcel of the leadership experience and something to expect rather than to be feared.
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Irvine: Well, welcome, everyone, to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. And my name is Irvine Nugent and today, as always, I am joined by my partner in crime, Bridgette Theurer. Bridgette, how are you doing today?
Bridgette: Oh, Irvine, I’m doing great. I have the privilege of looking out some windows in my office that are, awe. The views are magnificent, because it’s fall and I’m seeing gold and red and yellows, and it’s just such a beautiful landscape this time of year.
Bridgette: Yes. I feel.
Irvine: I love it.
Bridgette: I feel very fortunate to have such a gorgeous view out of my window. I know you like fall as well. You like that crispness in the air.
Irvine: I Do. Yes. This weekend was just perfection when it came to weather because the morning had the crisp and then it was bright sunshine, which, actually, felt a little warmer than it, actually, was. And so.
Irvine: It was so beautiful, I was down in DC this weekend and I was walking. We like to go through the monuments, at least once a quarter, and it was such a beautiful walk with that bright sunshine, and so it was a special day.
Bridgette: It feels good to be alive, when you have a day like that and you’re walking out in the sunshine, it just feels good to be alive.
Irvine: Absolutely. No, it, totally, does.
Bridgette: All right. So, Irvine.
Bridgette: We have been talking about this topic for a bit. We’ve been excited because we feel like it has some juice to it, so tell the listeners a little bit about this topic.
Irvine: Yeah. So, today we are going to talk about resistance and sabotage and why they might be signs that you’re, actually, doing something right. Now, this is a little bit counter intuitive. Think about it. As leaders or in your families or whatever, when you think about resistance, you think about something negative. And when we’re faced with resistance or sabotage, in the face of that, sometimes it’s hard to stand up to, we lose our resolve and, maybe, we begin to doubt ourselves, and is this, really, the path I should choose? If others don’t like it, then why would I want to go down there?
And so, at times we, kind of, choose, maybe, to lay back a little bit or, perhaps, we go forward, it backfires, and then we get nervous. So, it’s a dilemma, I think we all face in leadership. And Ed Freeman, who we have mentioned before, is one of the gurus, really; the great thinkers around systems and how systems impacts leadership. And in his book, A Failure of Nerve, he was speaking about this, and he said, and I want to quote him, is, sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away, instead, it comes with the territory of leading. Whether the territory is a family or an organization. So fascinating.
Bridgette: I love that quote. I love it because that phrase, it comes with the territory of leading, right? So, it’s baked into the very nature of the job description. Can you imagine in organizations, if there was a job description that said leader of the XYZ team, first responsibility; deal often and well with resistance and sabotage? I don’t think you would get many takers.
Irvine: No. No, not at all. No, it’s like, oh my God, yes. No, I don’t think so.
Bridgette: And yet, what he’s telling us, and we’re going to talk more about it, it’s part and parcel of the leadership experience. So, this makes me curious about your journey as a leader, because you’ve, from time to time, shared some insights and experiences from when you were leading an organization. So, Irvine, when you were in that role, did you ever experience some form of resistance or sabotage?
Irvine: Oh, boy, yes, I did. And I wish I had this episode because it might have helped me a little bit in dealing with it, but one of the things that happened is that I took over an organization that was very anxious. And there was a lot of unresolved anxieties out there, there were rumors about budget cuts, there was just a lot of different things. And when I came onboard, I knew that changes had to be made. And I think one of the things that happened was, that I decided, okay, change has to be made, I’m going to make those changes. And off I went on my merry way making these changes.
And I remember my first board meeting. And here I was, in front of a board who only, maybe, two months before had said, You’re the answer to our prayers. And now every single one of them was lined up against me, because all of this angst had reached the board table, oh, he’s not listening, he’s not doing this, he’s making this, he’s doing that. And, of course, instead of, really, being resolute, what happened was I cowered away and it, really, impacted my self-esteem. I have to, really, realize in the next six or seven months after that, I was risk averse and I, kind of, cowered away and I said, Oh, no, no, no, I’m not going to touch this. And so I, really, didn’t understand the dynamics of what was going on.
Bridgette: Boy, that sounds painful. And, as you said at the start, perhaps, if you had some of this insight, which we’re going to share with listeners, it might have turned out differently, right?
Irvine: Yeah, yeah.
Bridgette: I’m recalling a similar painful experience, a couple of them, actually, when I got some real heavy-duty pushback. One was when I was leading a big change initiative in a school where my children were, and the principal, you know how your board was all behind you and like, rah rah, rah, we’ve been waiting for you all of our lives? Well, this principal was like, Go forth, Bridgette, and make these changes, this is fantastic. And so, I did. And I remember the first night I started getting calls from disgruntled parents and some of these were friends of mine and some of them were neighbors and they were, really, calling into question what I was doing and why was I doing it. I was shocked. I was not prepared.
Bridgette: And then another time, I remember when I worked for Marriott and I joined this team. And the guy who hired me said, we need some fresh blood on this team. And I hired you because you have great ideas, so bring them on. And so, I brought them on and lo and behold, not everybody loved it.
Bridgette: And there was a woman, in particular, who she, really, pushed back hard on me and sabotaged some of my things. And, again, I was, really, taken aback. In both cases it felt so personal.
Irvine: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that’s what it is. I love that word personal because I think that resonates so strongly with my experience, that I felt it was this personal attack and it crippled me for a little bit, because it was like, you know? Then I went into my whole people don’t like me, they don’t like what you’re doing and all of those different sundry feelings that go with that. But dealing with resistance, really, is one of the toughest challenges we meet, we face as leaders. And I’d mentioned Ed Freeman at the beginning of the podcast, and he said, our ability to do this skillfully is referred to; he referred to it as the keys to the kingdom.
I love that. Because, really, it can make or break our success and our spirit, I think we’ve talked a little bit about that. Both our spirits were, really, impacted there. And it’s draining. There is an emotional impact to us and it’s, really, draining dealing with this. So, therefore, let’s just take a closer look at this. I think what we’re trying to say, Bridgette, is, really, not about us, there’s something bigger going on here. And do you want to say a little bit more about that, what might be, really, going on here?
Bridgette: Yeah. There is something bigger going on. And so, the first thing, I think, that can help us face into resistance and sabotage with greater courage; is to, really, understand it as a systemic response to change and not a personal one. So, we might, really, want to think about that for a minute. Resistance and sabotage feels, incredibly, personal, but it’s a systemic response to change and to the anxiety that is provoked by that change. And so, why is that the case? And so, all systems, right? Whether it’s relationship systems or planetary systems or bodily systems, they all have baked into them this natural instinct to preserve homeostasis, right?
It’s like homeostasis creates that stability and that order in the system. And so, when something threatens that homeostasis, it reverberates in the system and there’s a natural inclination to push back on that, right? To try to maintain the status quo. And we can see this in our own bodies when viruses invade our bodies, what’s the first thing that happens? We produce antibodies, right? We don’t think about it, we just do it. And guess what? Sometimes we’re wrong, our body is wrong, because it’s not a virus, it’s something else. But the point here is that leaders are called to challenge the status quo of their organizations, right?
We’re called to lead people to new destinations. And when we do that, it is threatening to the homeostasis of that system. And so, in that discomfort, you’re going to face, from some parts of the system, some resistance, sometimes it’s a ton, sometimes it’s sabotage, sometimes it’s a little bit of pushback or a combination of all of that. And so, it’s part and parcel of, as we said, the job description and we’re going to face it, and in point of fact, the reason it can be a sign we’re doing something right is because it’s, probably, a reflection of us fulfilling one of our primary duties as a leader, which is to challenge our organizations and lead them to new places. Yeah. So, All right. So, Irvine, I got on my soapbox there a little bit, and I’m curious, what did all of that provoke for you?
Irvine: Well, I love this idea of looking at the bigger picture and the fact that we are trying to change a system and how that can help us, depersonalize a little bit. I’m, really, thinking of a client that I was working with recently, who was in an organization that was going through a, really, big, big change initiative. And it was a, really, good change initiative. Sometimes changes, you wonder are they good or bad? But this one, really, came from a place where they were trying to move the organization into a better alignment with their values, and they were, really, beginning to question what they were doing and the value of that.
And the person, my client, I think is a very wonderful person, I think she’s a fantastic listener; she is everything that a person would want in a leader or a manager. And yet, we were talking over an angst that she had in dealing with one person that she was supervising, who she had just found out was, really, trying to sabotage her. And the way that she was sabotaging her was through some gossiping, and then also, really, planting seeds of division among other people. Kind of, really, that this change is malicious, you don’t know where they’re going with this, et cetera.
And she was saying, you could just hear the exasperation, I’m trying to do everything right, what am I doing wrong? Do I need to listen a little bit more? Et cetera. And I said, Look, no, you are doing everything well. You are showing empathy, but you are being strong at the same time that this change has to happen. And this is not about you; this is a person who is reacting in the bigger system, so the sabotage, all of these things are, and I just said, are normal and to be expected. And that was such a relief for her, because it was like, she thought that it was signs of something going wrong.
Signs of something that I’m doing wrong, but, really, to change that lens and to say, no, this is to be expected and it is normal. And, really, what’s required is, is to, yes, absolutely be attentive to, am I listening, et cetera? But at the end of the day saying, you know what, calm, for me, is just to be firm in my resolve.
Bridgette: God, what a beautiful example. She was doing everything right, and that’s what I think is so hard, right? Is if I’m doing everything right, why am I still getting this, kind of, behavior?
Irvine: Yes. Yes.
Bridgette: And so, you were able to say it’s normal, A.K.A., it’s a natural systemic response to change, and it’s okay. Yeah. You don’t have to change what you’re doing. And I find, similarly, when I’m coaching leaders and they’re facing pushback and resistance, and they get thrown off by it. And when I’m able to say, no, this is what anxious systems do to some extent, right?
Bridgette: So, stay the course. As long as I can hear that, just like with your client, they’re doing all of the right things, right?
Bridgette: Then stay the course. Yeah. So, really, what we’ve already said, I think, are two of the most important strategies for facing into resistance. Well, one, is expect it, because it’s part of your job prescription and it’s a sign that you’re doing something right? So, lean in, right? Depersonalize it and lean in. But there are some other strategies that we can share with our listeners, right? Building off of those two fundamental ones. So, what comes to mind first for you, Irvine?
Irvine: Yeah, so one of this, we’ve talked about this and it’s funny how both of us in our examples when we began this podcast, were talking about change initiatives and about driving change and sometimes it was called, and sometimes it wasn’t called for. And I think knowing that if we’re trying to drive change through a system, we need to lay some foundation for that change. And I think more often than not, I’m not sure about you, Bridgette, but my example, just personally, and working with leaders as well, it’s that they’ve drove the change through too early.
And I think what we can do is, it’s not that we’re avoiding the change, but rather, we’re creating a foundation that will make that change happen with greatest impact and, perhaps, as least resistance as possible. And part of that laying the foundation is, really, taking time. So often, I think, especially new leaders, they feel they have this onus that I need to make my mark. I need to make a difference, people need to say, Wow, they’ve, really, shown up, they’re doing a great deal. And, really, it takes courage just to sit back and to, really, reconnoiter and to think about what’s happening here, what am I noticing?
And then to, really, begin to get to know people, understanding why they do things, why they don’t, and just demonstrating a willingness to build trust and to listen. And I think this is essential because then when resistance comes, it can truly help us then understand, Oh, I’m not expected because I’m expecting that because this person shared with me how they’re in, there loving what they’re doing at the moment, and I know that any change is going to upset them, et cetera; so we can put it in the bigger picture. So, I think the first thing is to, really, take time and lay foundation for the change, and I think it will reap benefits later down.
Bridgette: Yeah. That’s so important, because if we move too quickly, right? With our change, without laying the foundation, we inadvertently invite resistance.
Bridgette: And it’s like, why do we want to make our job harder? We’re going to get some resistance anyway, even if we do everything perfectly. And I’ve seen it too with new leaders, making that mistake, and sometimes just with anxious leaders, who want to prove themselves, right? Who are worried about threats that exist around their team or their organization. And so, they push through the change in an anxious way without laying the foundation, and then they get resistance on top of the natural resistance that you’re going to face anyways, so that’s, really, good. Okay. What else can we remind listeners of?
Irvine: Yeah, so what other strategies have you found helpful? Say this one about laying a foundation, what else have you found, perhaps, helpful, as well, when it comes to that?
Bridgette: Well, you mentioned in an earlier episode, saboteur, right? And I can’t remember in what context we were talking about that. But we know for certain that we’re going to get some of this resistance and sabotage. And I think every instinct in our bodies when we get it, is to disconnect from those people who are, right? Who are the deniers or the ones spreading the rumors and the gossip, it’s like, ah, and we disconnect, but there’s a real danger in that. So, Irvine, speak to that, because your client had a saboteur, and I wonder if her instinct was to distance and disconnect.
Irvine: Yeah. I think, yeah, there was this angst of trying to, it feels bad, the energy is bad, and so why be in the presence of someone that drains me? And some coaches say, Oh my God, this person’s just so draining, I have a conversation with him and I feel exhausted. So, of course therefore, it is like, why would I want to connect myself? And yet, if we’re not connected we can’t influence. And so, what’s, incredibly, important is, yes, it may be draining, but if we, totally, disconnect, we have zero influence. And, therefore, what you’re left is, kind of, a saboteur on the loose
Bridgette: Saboteur on the loose. On the roam.
Irvine: On the loose. Beware, beware. One of our conversations is, well then, how do you, kind of, remain connected? And one of the conversations we had a lot is just healthy boundaries. One of the things we talked about was, we have to, kind of, try and move the saboteur, because very often there’s a lot of energy about what’s not working, what’s going wrong, and this person loves to relive the greatest hits of everything that has gone wrong. And to, really, then try to, really, move, well, let’s talk about the future, let’s talk about what we could create. And try and move that energy a little bit away from what’s not working, what’s wrong to, maybe, a future vision.
And or else, kind of, inviting them to be part of the fix. Well then, what could we do to fix this? and, really, move that mindset and, really, maintain that dialogue and that conversation, because I think that’s, really, really, important. What other strategies do you think, Bridgette, you might have for dealing with sabotage and resistance?
Bridgette: Well, I have a couple I want to share, but there’s something you’re saying that I, really, want to, kind of, go back to, which is. So, in your example of that client, she had one person on her team, who was a saboteur, right?
Bridgette: And in the client that I was helping recently with this, she’s leading an organization of about 700 people. And she was talking on and on and on about, she didn’t call them saboteurs, but that’s, essentially, what they were. And there was so much energy behind this, and she was talking about what they were saying and doing, and I said, how many people is this? And she said, Three. And I’m like, 3 out of 700. But this is what happened, that we allow the saboteurs to take a disproportionate share of our energy and attention. So, we want to stay connected to them and invite them to play a role, as you said, and not let them overwhelm us like they’re the be all and end all, right?
Bridgette: Okay. So, a couple of strategies that we talk about in our resilient leadership training that, I think are, really, helpful. One is, and I don’t know where I heard this phrase many, many years ago, but it’s suggests a, really, important strategy. And that is, you can let them visit pity city, but don’t let them park there.
Irvine: Oh. Oh, I love that.
Bridgette: And it just says a lot, doesn’t it, Irvine?
Irvine: Yeah, it, totally, does. Says everything. Yes.
Bridgette: I think of a pot of water on a stove, right? And it’s starting to boil, and then you leave it for a while and there’s a lid on. And it starts to boil over, and unless you lift that lid up and let some of the steam escape, it’s just going to get worse, right?
Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.
Bridgette: The trick is, let people let a little steam off, that’s normal. Give them the space and opportunity to express some of their concerns and don’t shove the top back on too quickly, but don’t let it sit there forever, right? We have to redirect that energy toward that future that we’re trying to create, as you said, right, with the saboteurs? What is the future that we’re trying to create? And that’s a tricky balance, don’t you think?
Irvine: Yes. Really, relieved. Because it can be such a trap, and it’s a balance, how much is too much. And I love this idea of, yes, listening to people’s complaints is important, and yet it can be a trap.
Irvine: So, any ideas of, how do you deal with that, Bridgette? How do you deal with that line that can be crossed over when it comes to the pity party?
Bridgette: Okay. Well, it, kind of, leads me into, maybe, another related strategy, but I do want to say this; that you, really, have to be very present to discern, you have to use discernment as to know when is that moment when the venting now has taken a turn into the territory of the to never be returned place, right?
Bridgette: When you know that the venting is no longer letting off steam, but it’s, actually, trapping people. And so, you have to be present and discern, and then you have to show that you heard them, right? Because if you don’t even demonstrate that, they’re not going to go with you anywhere, right? And then you refocus them with questions that have something to do with empowering them or inviting them into the future. Okay. But here’s another strategy related to your question, Irvine, and that is; to, really, as a manager and a leader, know the difference between reactive complaints and productive complaints and teach your people that distinction.
So, what’s the difference? So, a reactive complaint comes from anxiety, right? And we feel so anxious; we want to get rid of the hot potato of our anxiety. And so, we start to complain and vent at the wrong time, to the wrong person, from the wrong frame of mind. And it’s a, ah, it’s a five. What are we? It’s a Defcon five alarm going off. And that’s not, particularly, effective and it’s hard to be heard when we’re in that place.
And then there’s the productive complaint, which is, okay, my manager has made this decision or is considering making this decision and I have some real concerns about it. Let me get on the balcony, something we’ve talked about before. And do some thinking. Why am I concerned? And how might I share this in a productive way and when and where, and how can I be part of the solution? So, I think that’s, really, helpful and one other thing I’ll say about that is, the thing about reactive complaints is sometimes the content of the complaint is not even what it’s about.
Bridgette: They’re just offloading their anxiety, and if you, prematurely, think, oh, if I just take care of this one complaint, everything will be fine. And then you take care of it and they’re back again. You’ve fallen into that trap.
Bridgette: You’ve seen that before, right?
Irvine: Absolutely. And it is such a very fine dividing line, I think you mentioned there, and just reiterated being present to it and, kind of, just, really, being curious ourselves. I think, at times, we can get into this mindset, oh my God, when’s this ever going to end, et cetera? And then just to be curious, I always like, well, where is this coming from? And just to ask yourself, is this the heart of it? Is this, really, the heart of it?
Bridgette: Ah. That’s a good question.
Irvine: Or is it something different? And just to, kind of, engage, because, really, what it is then, we’re not, really, into the whole, the negativity and the energy we’re, really, curious about, and we’re, really, kind of, investigators and, kind of, like, what’s at this? What’s driving this? And we can, kind of, really, then being, kind of, diagnosed, what’s going on here?
Bridgette: I love it. Where’s this coming from and what’s at the heart of it? That’s fantastic. Yeah, those are great questions. So, you mentioned earlier that when we are facing resistance and sabotage, sometimes it, really, knocks us for a loop and it erodes our confidence and our resolve.
Bridgette: And so, what’s a practice that we can leave our listeners with to, kind of, bolster that, right? In the moment of that pushback, where we might want to buckle?
Irvine: Yeah. So, the practice today, I think what I’d love to suggest for us is to reconnect with the bodily experience of what’s going on. We’ve talked about this before, we’ve talked about so often in our world, we’re hired for our neck upward, and anything that’s below our neck, we just forget about it. And yet, this is such an experience, because it is an experience not just of emotions, but it’s also a physical experience, this sabotage and, kind of, how that impacts us. So, it’s, really, learning to listen to our bodies and use the power of that in how we show up, and so we’ll call this embodying your length.
And we know colloquially, this is part of expressions that we use; we’ve said, that’s the person, he’s got no spine. Really interesting. Or else, she’s stood tall even in the face of her critics. And so, we get this definition of whenever we feel attacked, we close in ourselves, we have no spine, we collapse, or whenever we’re facing with pride and with conviction, we’re standing tall. And so, therefore, this practice is all about embodying that idea of a tall spine. And so, what I invite you to do, I don’t know where you’re at as you’re listening to this. But just imagine yourself and, kind of, physically do this, this is important because it’s part of it.
First of all, take a position of collapse, of leaning over, of being slumped in a posture. And then, imagine having to advocate for something you believe in. And I would even invite you just to say some words, think about something you want to advocate for and notice how that feels. Notice what it’s like to have this bodily position and here you are trying to advocate for something and appear strong and resolute. And then, next, take a position, come out of that position, and just imagine yourself standing with just pride and your chin is, slightly, elevated.
And if you could just imagine holding yourself off the ground and just imagine that there’s a little piece of string on the crown of your head that’s propping it up and you feel, kind of, erect and not stiff, but just erect, and think about that and just be aware. And then, imagine embodying that presence and what does that presence feel like. And I feel, at times, we, automatically, go into this, unconsciously, when we think of moments in our past, where we think of something that we’ve done that we’re very proud of.
And I think we, automatically, have this, kind of, feeling of being erect. And I think that bodily position signals to our minds that we are confident, that we are ready, that we are worthy, and that what we have to say is of value. So, even think of doing that exercise, perhaps, the next time when you have a meeting where you’re called in and you’re just worried, you’re anticipating, perhaps, a little bit of sabotage, you’re anticipating pushback from people. Just take a few minutes to, really, embody what does it mean to embody your length, your dignity and your value.
And just take a little time just owning that space, and as you walk into the meeting just own that space. And then, perhaps, just notice, notice when you’re facing, perhaps, pushback in a meeting. Just take note of how is your body in this position, have you collapsed? And if you’ve collapsed, just readjust, even if you’re seated in a chair, readjust as well, so that you’re lengthening your spine and that you are consistent in your body with what’s coming out of your mouth.
Bridgette: Thank you for that, Irvine, because as you talked about the practice, I followed your words and I did it. And what I noticed is when my spine was collapsed and I was slumping, I felt so defeated.
Bridgette: And then when I embodied that upright tall spine, I felt so empowered. It’s fascinating what a little shift like that will do for us.
Bridgette: And when the pushback comes, that moment of being able to embody our length can make or break us, right?
Irvine: Yeah. Absolutely.
Bridgette: Lovely, lovely. Well, thank you so much, as always.
Irvine: Thank you. Yeah. This has been fascinating,
Bridgette: Hasn’t it, though? It’s just a great conversation about leaning into resistance and sabotage and counter intuitively seeing that, in many cases, it’s a sign we’re doing something right. that it feels personal, but it’s, really, just a systemic response to change.
Bridgette: And that there are some real strategies we can use to deal with this part of our job description, because it comes with the territory of leading, so it ain’t going to go away. All right. So, let’s talk about topic for next time, which I believe, Irvine, is, are you stuck in a toxic triangle?
Bridgette: Sound good?
Irvine: Yeah, I’m fascinated.
Bridgette: All right. I look forward to having that conversation with you and our listeners next time. And thank you, Irvine, as always, for being such a great collaborator.
Irvine: Thank you, Bridgette, as well. Enjoyed our conversation and looking forward to talking about toxic triangles.
Bridgette: All right. Take care, everybody.
Irvine: Bye now.