Resistance is a Judgment, Not an Action

This article was originally published on the Tri Tuns Blog.

When talking about user adoption of major IT systems – CRM, ERP, HRIS, etc – at some point the discussion always focuses on overcoming “user resistance”. When I probe deeper and ask clients to define exactly what they mean by “user resistance” (what form it takes, what causes it, and what they do to “overcome” it) they often struggle to provide specific answers. If we cannot accurately articulate the problem, how can we recognize and solve it?

The term “user resistance” has become a vague concept – a convenient short-hand of sorts – that is used to justify poor user adoption. Implicit in this term are the ideas that 1.) user adoption is solely at the discretion of the end-user and 2.) if the end-user does not adopt your system it is an act of defiance. If you accept this to be true, it follows that the responsibility for overcoming user resistance lies completing at the feet of the end-user. This just isn’t true.

In a previous
blog entry on leadership, I shared the quote, “We judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions.” When discussing user resistance it is very important to recognize that we observe discrete actions (user behaviors), but it is not until we assign our judgment that they become “user resistance”. When we judge an action to be “user resistance” it has serious implications:

  • It blames the user. By shifting responsibility for IT adoption from the implementation & management team to the end-user, we have created a convenient scapegoat if the system is deemed a failure.
  • It helps us save face. By focusing all the attention on the users, we don’t need to examine where we might have done something wrong or lacked the skills to perform our jobs.
  • It creates blind-spots. Our approach to change management might have been inappropriate, and as a result we might have ignored barriers to adoption that fall outside the users’ control. These organizational barriers could be what are preventing users from adopting the system.
  • It ignores root-causes & contributing factors. Focusing on user behaviors may cause us to miss other technical, organizational, functional, process, data, or other factors that prevent user adoption.

Whenever the label “user resistance” is assigned, this is a signal that YOU have more work to do. Stop and clarify what are the specific actions you observed. Identify what made you determine that these are instances of “resistance”. Determine if there are other explanations or contributing factors for these actions. Share your observations with the actual end-users and ask for their help in understanding what caused the behaviors, while requesting specific alternative behaviors they should take in the future.

By shifting our focus from “user resistance” to other explanations for poor user adoption we can:

  • Look at other issues, contributing factors, and root-causes for undesirable behavior
  • Find new solutions where before we might not have seen alternatives
  • Take ownership and action for driving user adoption – without abdicating this responsibility to the end-users
  • Help move things forward and drive success


  • What made you decide that the problem was “user resistance”? What specific actions/behaviors did you observe that led you to this conclusion?
  • What causes the users to demonstrate this behavior? Was this an act of defiance? Were users not clear on what behavior was expected of them? Did you share your observations and suggest specific alternative actions they should take in the future?
  • Are there other causes/drivers for the action (or inaction)? Are there organizational barriers that prevent users from acting as desired? Are there misaligned rewards or incentives that are encouraging the problem behavior?
  • Is there something that YOU can do to change user behavior? Is there something YOU need to do differently to drive desired behavior? Is there something about your change or user adoption methodology that is encouraging the behavior that you labeled “resistance”?


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