The paradox of passive resistance

“There is too much passive resistance in this organization! When I suggest something, everyone agrees. But they go back and do whatever they wanted to do”, said the frustrated business leader.

‘Passive resistance’ is a term that is heard quite often in business organizations. Let us begin by looking at this phenomenon from a broader perspective.

From a psychological point of view, passive resistance is a form of passive-aggressive behavior. Passive-aggressive behavior involves acting indirectly aggressive rather than directly aggressive. It usually manifests as procrastination, resentment, sullenness, helplessness or even as deliberate failure to accomplish tasks.

From a sociopolitical perspective, passive resistance is a method of nonviolent protest against laws or policies in order to force a change or secure concessions. This involves methods like economic or political noncooperation, hunger strikes/fasting, mass demonstrations, refusal to obey or carry out a law or to pay taxes, economic boycotts, symbolic protests etc.

Keeping these in mind, let us come back to passive resistance in the context of business organizations. Employees exhibiting ‘active resistance’ are vocal in their criticism and they might even make efforts to cause the change to fail. Employees showing ‘passive resistance’ exhibit little visible resistance. They will outwardly agree with the change that is being proposed, but then act as if they don’t. Even though they don’t challenge the change directly, they will continue doing things their own way.

The typical behavioral manifestations of passive resistance in organizations include

not taking ownership while appearing to agree with the proposed change

diminished enthusiasm/ withdrawal/ sulkiness/ apathy/cynicism/hopelessness

complaining without offering solutions

blaming others

indecisiveness/ procrastination

excessive adherence to procedures/guidelines

working inefficiently/making half-hearted efforts

withholding information

‘forgetting’ obligations/commitments

repeatedly making excuses to avoid assigned tasks/ working on unwanted tasks

over-complicating the new way of working

propagating rumors

From these it appears that passive resistance is clearly something ‘bad’. So, what is paradoxical about passive resistance? A paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives on something – each of which is true – but they appear to contradict one another. Let us look at some of the opinions about passive resistance

Passive resistance is more dangerous than active resistance as it is a ‘silent killer’ (that goes undetected and hence unresolved).

People who display passive resistance lack the courage to stand up for what they believe in.

People resort to passive resistance to hide their incompetence.

The primary reason for passive resistance is an environment where the direct expression of disagreement is discouraged. When employees feel that they cannot express their opinions and emotions openly, they might resort to more indirect methods of expressing the same.

Passive resistance can be a very ‘logical response’ in a hierarchical organization where it is culturally unacceptable to oppose the views of the superiors directly.

It is often the ‘good’ employees (highly independent, highly competent and highly committed to their work/organization) who exhibit passive resistance. They are the people who can operate with a high degree of independence. Their high degree of competence enables them to realize that the plan of action suggested by the superiors might not always be correct or in the best interest of the organization. They also care too much about their work and the organization to just ‘go along’. Again, they are intelligent enough to realize that they can’t express their disagreement directly without seriously jeopardizing their careers. Hence, they respond with passive resistance!

Sometimes, passive resistance can be a ‘rational’ behavior which lets an employee dodge unnecessary tasks while avoiding confrontation. Employees often resort to passive resistance when the assigned task or the imposed view does not make sense to them. It helps the employee to gain a sense of control. Passive resistance becomes problematic only when it becomes a habitual and indiscriminate response.

An employee might not always be consciously aware of his/her passive-aggressive behavior.

The basic ‘animal response’ in a stressful situation is ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. ‘Fight’ is like active resistance and a fight response (in its basic form) might not be a possible (without serious repercussions) in many situations that employees face in business organizations. Similarly, a ‘flight response’ in its basic form (e.g. getting out of the situation by changing roles, changing jobs etc.) might not also be feasible. Hence ‘passive resistance’ (which can be conceptualized as a ‘creative’ combination of ‘fight and flight’) becomes a ‘natural response’ to cope with the brutal realities of organizational life. By the way, it has been argued that insanity is a perfectly sane response to an insane environment!

Please note that the attempt here is not to glorify (or even to justify) passive resistance. The idea is to develop a richer understanding of the complex reality that underlies the phenomenon of passive resistance which in turn will help us to respond to passive resistance more effectively.

So, how should we deal with passive resistance- in ourselves and in others? A good place to start is to examine some of the causes of the passive resistance mentioned above.

If the cause for passive resistance is an environment where the direct expression of disagreement is discouraged, the logical first step should be to make it more safe/acceptable to express opinions/disagreement more directly/openly. Of course, this is easier said than done, changing (hierarchical) cultures often requires significant amount of time and effort.

If the passive resistance is based upon the belief that past practices have been enough and there is no need to change, then placing more emphasis on creating and communicating the ‘business case’ for the change becomes critical. This is especially important in those situations, where employees go into passive resistance as a means of retaliation against some decision or action that they perceive to be unfair or unjustified.

If the key contributing factor is lack of lack of competence or lack of confidence in their ability to execute, then capability building & coaching should be looked at.

If the problem is primarily with the loss of control/independence, getting the employees more involved in the change process, giving them more freedom in determining how to carry out the task and reducing the amount of micromanagement (while ensuring accountability) will help.

If the main contributing factor is some sort of ‘learned helplessness’, enabling people to examine their thought processes (and the inferences/attribution errors they are making) along with enabling them to build the requisite skills to operate in the new environment will help. If the transition from ‘learned helplessness’ to ‘learned optimism’ can be facilitated, it would provide a significant advantage when it comes to dealing with the next wave of change.

Hence, the primary strategy to deal with passive resistance is to surface it so that it can be addressed in a reasonable manner. However, if there are issues at the structure level (e.g. administrative and functional managers of an employee driving conflicting priorities in a matrix organization), at the group level (e.g. inter-group conflict) or at the interpersonal level (e.g. power/political struggle with the person driving the change, lack of trust, emotional baggage from previous interactions etc.) that lead to passive resistance down the line, they need to be addressed at the appropriate level.

Of course, basics of good change management like articulating the vision, communicating the business case for the proposed change and the ‘What is in it for me’ for the impacted individuals, creating forums to raise and address issues, demonstrating top management commitment and helping employees to improve their change resilience are very much relevant here also!

*Prasad Kurian is an explorer in the domains of Organization Development & Talent Management. You can read more about his thoughts on his blog ‘Simplicity @ the other side of Complexity’ or in his recently published book ‘Life in Organizations – Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities’.


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