Stopping Resisters from Hijacking your Team

By Andrew Grant

EXPLORE – How much damage can a few individuals do?

Recently in Indonesia, a country of 200 million people, a few hundred angry demonstrators and a few cameras led to $1.2 billion worth of damage in lost revenue in terms of tourism sales in terms of tourism sales and huge losses in jobs and income for many local people. Ironically, those responsible for the disruption are actually only a very small number – but their protests were magnified by the majority presence of paid “rent-a-crowd” demonstrators.

In the USA, 19 people caused $6 billion worth of financial damage and irreparable emotional damage due to lives lost and national and international security threatened..

If only that energy could have been constructive rather than destructive.

In any organisation, group or country there is always the possibility that a minority that don’t even represent the group can cause massive and costly damage. In effect, these people can hijack a group – take the group in a direction that is far away from the needed outcomes.

The question is: How do we deal with these people?

· Ignore them so they can continue to wreak havoc?

· React to them and directly confront them, which means you may risk strengthening their position?

· Give them undeserved and politically dangerous airtime?

Do you remember how attention seekers at school would drain all the teacher’s time and energy, leaving the rest of the class to work by themselves? It never seems fair.

EXAMINE: Learning to deal with resisters

Leaders must learn to deal with resisters and “hijackers” before the situation gets out of control. Here are some positive steps wise leaders can take to ensure resistors don’t become hijackers:

1. Recognise resisters have special needs

People who are capable of going against the group mentality are powerful people, and this power can be used in positive or negative ways. Resistersmay have special needs (perhaps unhealed wounds), may see something that others cannot see, or may simply be power hungry. The trouble is resisters can become inappropriate in the ways they express their dissatisfaction.

Dr Fowler believes that most people in society function on a “Synthetic-Conventional” belief system – that they go along with the crowd. Some people, however, can rise above this to question the status quo. This questioning can be positive if it is managed correctly and without ulterior motives.

If resistersare nothing but attention seekers or power mongers, it is vital to not reinforce their negative behaviour. A good leader will ignore (as much as possible) any childish outcries and cheap attempts to gain a position of influence, confronting them off stage when they are less emotional and least expect it instead.

Once the immediate problem has been dealt with, the leader will then need to ask what the real cause of frustration is. The big question behind the question is: Are these people team players, or rogue individuals hassling for power? The answer to this will determine the direction needed to take next.

Some resisters have what Argyris calls “defensive routines “, or habitual ways of interacting that protect them from the threat of embarrassment – but also prevent them from learning.

2. Create fertile grounds for negotiation

It is possible to create an environment where people can feel free to voice their opinions, but it is important for the leader to let individuals know that while their opinions are valued they will need to be considered by the decision makers along with other options (whether the decision makers are the whole group, the leader, or a higher authority.)

Leaders need to keep an eye out for politicking and the formation of sub-groups of individuals that can end up talking behind closed doors. One General Manager I interviewed said that whenever he hears “gossip” he is quick to move by bringing these people into his office and telling them directly: “Talk to me or no one.” He finds that people often back down from their statements and are more careful to think before they speak the next time around.

Catch it before it grows. That way at meetings it is possible to concentrate on the issue and not get bogged down by the politics. Leaders must work hard to avoid internal politics and competitive infighting, which can threaten to pit individuals against each other and destroy the group. Leaders need to help people move towards a more creative and less reactive stance.

3. Ask yourself whether these people are really worth it

There are two basic options in response to the question of whether resisters are really worth the effort:


Many executives we have spoken to will answer with this question with a resounding: NO! They say that in the long run resisters who are high maintenance people that cannot learn be team players are not worth it, no matter how intelligent they are. They are time bombs waiting to explode.

In the long run, attitude is more important than skill. Why? Because resisters can drain too much of the leader’s time and destroy the cohesiveness and morale of the entire group. They can have such strong tunnel vision that they cannot see the “greater good”. If they are prepared to sacrifice the entire group and /or project for their issue, it is best they are removed from the group. They would probably prefer to win an argument than acknowledge the need to find a common solution.

If resisters are not capable of learning to reflect on their own assumptions and enquire into others’ thinking, then blocking will occur.


Rather than marginalising people that hold different views, companies can instead learn to diversify their teams. Research shows that although there is more chance of friction in heterogeneous teams (teams made up of people with mixed skills and behaviour styles), they are actually far more effective than teams made up of like minded people. As a study form Accenture has found, leaders must learn to “surround themselves with people of diverse talents. That is not easy to do. It’s human nature to place the highest value on our own talents and dismiss those that are not like our own.”

Companies can learn to leverage not just what employees think, but also how they think – their distinct cognitive processes

Before making a quick emotionally based decision about throwing resistors out, leaders need to ask, “Is my opponent a “good enemy”?” Oscar Wilde has said, “I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their characters and my enemies for their intellect.” A good enemy is of immense value. He holds our feet to the fire and makes us stretch. He watches what we pay attention to, he challenges us when we are weak, keeps us slightly off balance and forces us to continually adjust. In this the good enemy is an ally, a teacher, and possibly even a healer.” (Rivers)

The holding of a different opinion is not an excuse to marginalise a person.

Conclusion: Don’t avoid conflict, but try to use it constructively. Never kick a resister out without first trying facilitating and counselling. If the situation becomes unmanageable and the cost is too high to the group as a whole, trying to keep the individual resistor will only be a pyrrhic victory – the cost of achievement is too much.

4. Use an independent facilitator

What teams with resisters need to aim for is to use the conflict constructively. Heated discussions and outright fighting must be replaced with positive dialogue. Often this can only be done with the assistance of an external facilitator.

The CEO of Shell Oil has discussed how at an offsite meeting, where the executive team got together for important discussions, a key failing was revealed. “None of us had even the simplest skills for talking to each other in a meaningful way. We could debate, but we could not listen or share what we were thinking effectively. Our facilitator helped us to begin surfacing problems and lay out our real feelings.”

The problem was that the executive team was made up of engineers and scientists unwilling or unable to link their fields together for the sake of the overall business. What teams often fail to realise is that, “Each person’s views are a unique perspective of a larger reality.”

A good facilitator can ensure that constructive dialogue takes place. Senge says that an independent guide can hold the context of dialogue. In the absence of a skilled facilitator, our habits continually pull us towards debate and away from dialogue. A good facilitator, on the other hand, can help people maintain ownership of the process and outcomes. In dialogue people become observers of their own thinking.

The goal of the facilitator is not to help one side win the argument, but rather to find the best argument. The common ground assumption the facilitator lays down is that both parties want a solution and are wise enough to see the consequences of not finding one.

We have seen that war is no longer symmetrical. That means those with a cause and who are pushed to the limit will go outside the acceptable way of dealing with the situation. No progress can be made until ground rules are established. An independent facilitator’s role is to keep the group moving forward..

5. Find common ground

When it comes down to it, most of us want the same sorts of outcomes. Peace, freedom, happiness… the chance to make a difference and contribute. How we want to achieve these may be a different matter, but there is usually at least something in common. All negotiation must start from a common ground.

Sun Tzu says that direct confrontation should be the last option, not one to be taken lightly or with any form of celebration. In our years of group development we have had many situations where we have been able to work with the leader and the difficult individual involved to turn them around and use their energy for constructive rather than destructive purposes. Most people in a work environment just don’t want to live with conflict.

Resisters may be able to see a perspective that could save the group, so be careful about trying to make them fit “the mould”. Be careful when dealing with resisters that you are not too quick to conveniently put them in a box, label them, and then excommunicate them. Watch your assumptions and what they are based on.

Leaders should stay focussed and must be careful to not get caught up or obsessed with an all out war. A leader is to try to mend situations not exacerbate them. Effective leaders recognize what blocks a team and learn a way to acknowledge it without making others more defensive.

6. Get to the facts: Find the real reason and name it

As the grief settled after the WTC terrorism attack, some people started to ask: Why? All were clear that there was no excuse for terrorism, but to actively try to stop terrorism there were several paths and possibilities stemming from two main options: fight the groups involved directly to attempt to remove the problem, or try to identify and/or deal with the cause of the problem.

In the long run, direct attack on resisters may only temporarily suppress but deep down strengthen them. Until the real reason is dealt with (if this is possible), tension will always be present. Before considering an offensive approach, it is vital that decision makers ask without bias how valid the cause of the resistors needs is. The action itself and how justifiable it may seem (which is open to opinion) are two separate issues. The more desperate a resister feels, the more likely it is that his actions will be socially unacceptable.

Rather than attack, some company executives we have talked to have said that they have deliberately created such a strong culture that people that are not willing to make an effort find it hard to survive in it and will often leave of their own accord. It is better to dialogue with resisters and let them know that perhaps they are not in the best place for them or the company, as the cost may be too high for both.

Senge says that structures that we are unaware of often hold us prisoner. Only when we can find the real reasons and name them for what they really are can we start to deal with the deeper issues.

7. Avoid secondary conflicts that can escalate

The biggest unnecessary cause of many problems can be secondary conflicts. These happen when two parties end up reverting to emotional put downs, and the conflict is brought out into the open where bystanders are forced to take sides. The actual issues become lost.

Once the emotions are flying people will say things that will be hard to reverse. They must learn to see that it is their thoughts and not the way they hold them that should be dealt with. Good leaders stay focused on solving the real issue.

While leaders still need to deal with the issue, they must avoid secondary conflict by creating a positive working environment. An environment where the more Person A argues, the greater the threat it is to Person B – thus meaning person B will simply argue more fiercely – does nothing to fix the problem. Advocacy must be turned into enquiry.

Unfortunately Senge believes that most managers are trained to be advocates. They are taught to solve problems by giving their expert advice. They become successful according to their ability to be able to forcefully influence others. When they are put in a leadership position they need to learn to tap the creative knowledge of the group and create an environment of enquiry.

8. Make the individuals involved a part of the process

Prevention is always better than cure. Don’t be responsible for encouraging resistors to become hijackers.

Quality leaders have a knack of making people – even potential resistors – feel a part of the process. By making them take responsibility for the larger picture and dealing with their needs, potential resistors are empowered to contribute positively.

Way back in 1962 Gunderson and Nelson released the results of their first study on groups and leadership . They found that one of the key areas that set good leaders apart from others was their ability to develop personal relationships with the group, and seek individual opinions in the matters that directly involved them.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer, was willing to go to great lengths to minimize the potential of conflict. He invited resistors to meetings to make them part of the process. He even assigned one of the key trouble making people to his own tent. He was not fond of this person, but preferred dealing with him directly himself rather than allowing him to affect the rest of the group.

Making resisters part of the process does not necessarily mean allowing them to be the decision makers. Rather, you can try to include them where you can and develop a relationship with them. Sam Keen, in his revealing book “Faces of the Enemy”, points out that it is much easier to kill people when they are faceless – hence the power of war propaganda. It is hard to turn people into enemies when you have a relationship with them.

The most amusing example of this I have encountered came out when I was talking to a GM in a hotel in a troubled area of Lombok. I remember visiting the hotel early in his stay, and was shocked to see security signs were posted all over the beach telling guests to walk on the beach at their own risk as robberies were common.

Several years later I asked him what he had done about the problem. He replied that he had gone to the village and found the chief trouble makers – and employed them as beach security! Not ideal, but given the circumstance a very clever move. He dealt with the real problem, by recognising the concerns that marginalised unemployed people face by giving them an important job and a purpose. Most of all, he challenged the destructive energy into something constructive.

Perhaps one day we will read in the headlines about how a group of 200 – or even 19 – passionate committed people created $8 billion of dollars to give to the needy. It is possible!


© Andrew Grant


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