Wrestling with the fine line between resistance and bullying in business transformation

by Jeanette Peterson

Wrestling with the fine line between resistance and bullying in business transformation

Is your organisation embarking on a business transformation program?

If you are and you haven’t taken a solid look at your culture, you had better get ready for what picking off the proverbial scabs, can do to your culture in a business transformation program.

If your organisation is already having a culture dilemma that you are struggling to overcome, a business transformation program might throw a spanner in the works that you aren’t prepared for. In turn, it could bring out the worst instead of the best in your workforce.

When considering when to embark on a business transformation program and where to start, it is incredibly important to consider if your workplace culture is ready to support or sabotage your transformation objectives.

You might be thinking sabotage is too strong a word. Yet sabotage happens on two levels. There is deliberate sabotage which is the calculated undermining of a program, and then there is accidental sabotage which comes from a place of fear, often built on trauma or misdirected protection.

So, you might be thinking, well no culture is perfect, right? I would wholeheartedly agree. However, it could be a recipe for disaster if you choose to embark on a significant transformation program if your culture is struggling and in a mode of fear-based response to change.

Poor culture is a shaky foundation that can lead to poor engagement, and even worse, deep-seated resentment and resistance, particularly if your workplace culture is dripping with avoidance and defensiveness.

You might be thinking, your culture isn’t that bad. However, when the status quo is maintained, problems with culture can disappear under the surface, kind of hidden from view. I have seen this more times than I care to count. It is dangerous in business transformation to be caught off guard because when people are under pressure, fearing change, it often brings the worst possible scenarios of poor culture messily rushing to the surface.

When you start scratching off the scabs within a change program, it could set you back further than where you were before you began your transformation. When this happens, it will leave your staff delivering essential foundational components of the business transformation, scrambling to get some early runs on the board, to build trust on the fly and to help you achieve successful outcomes.

Like anything in business, when the risks are high, so too are the rewards. There are many downsides to this in business transformation, including burnout and quiet-quitting. Showing up in a somewhat hostile workplace every day for 3 to 5 years is a lot to ask of anyone.

We should never undervalue the resilience that transformation people bring to business. They are a special group of people with skills often lacking in the workplaces they come to.

With this in mind, resistance that shows up in transformation is often exhibited in behaviours, that far too often look more like bullying and harassment, than constructive or reasonable resistance.

Yet I can honestly say that if I hadn’t become resilient to these bullying and harassment behaviours, being called resistance, most transformation programs I’ve been involved in would have never achieved success.

It is a precariously fine line to tread, not just for those individuals on the receiving end but also for the output of the organisation’s culture as a whole. This is a line that I would recommend treading with extreme caution because the impacts of culture on transformation can lead to damage to both staff and public opinion.

In old school business transformation programs, organisations brought in change teams, so these people could do the heavy lifting, be burned and blamed, then leave.

However, there is much data now that shows this tact isn’t viable in the long term for several reasons. The proof is in the lack of long-term success achieved in business transformation programs across the board.

Firstly the change capabilities are never fully integrated across the business, so when the change people leave so too do the valuable skills they brought.

The result of this is a progressive march backwards. It is widely known in business transformation circles that successful change framework integration takes 5 to 10 years, whilst the average transformation program is 3 to 5 years, so the vital skills being engaged during the business transformation program leave the organisation, when the newly forming capability is still in its infancy.

The progressive march backward can be so subtle that it remains undetected until it reaches a critical state of failure to integrate. This is very much like end-stage kidney disease, where you can get down to 10% functionality of your kidneys before you discover you have a problem. By the time this happens, it is already too late to reverse.

If organisations continue to stick to the old ways of bringing in a change team, only to burn them and lose these essential skills to uplift their organisational change capability, the same cycles of failure will continue to occur along with substantial amounts of money walking out the door as the change team leaves.

This is only one of the many problems in the business transformation current implementation models being run and failing on expensive repeating cycles.

So how do we walk the tightrope of business transformation, between recognising how to manage resistance, and maintaining a solid policy of zero tolerance for bullying and harassment of people involved, whilst not making the business transformation team the enemy?


It all begins with a solid foundation of trust and support at the most senior levels, with a clear strategy in showing up as managers, leading by example and instilling respect in all engagement processes throughout the business transformation.

A leadership team that is not cohesive in the boardroom, as well as in their day-to-day roles, is the root cause of all failures in business transformation. When organisations are put under the immense pressure of business transformation programs, they look to their leaders for direction and inspiration. There can be no gaps in support, no political game-playing, and no cracks for staff to fall through. This is the foundation that is essential for the business transformation’s program success to be built upon. Without this deep trust at the highest levels, open engagement and respect, a collapse is imminent.

We all play a role in our workplace to call out inappropriate behaviour and to respectfully remind our colleagues when they have crossed the line, whether their actions and or behaviours are intentional or not.

Walking that tightrope must be shared across the organisation so it does not fall on a few to manage the burden.

Equally, this kind of behaviour is something that people working to support transformation within their organisation should not have to cop on the chin, so to speak.

For true business transformation success, an organisation’s culture must equally grow through the experience. Then we all get to grow both personally and professionally.

If you are working in a transforming organisation, how you are showing up means everything.

Are you playing your part?

Or have you been accidentally complicit?

Because in reality what you observe without intervention you accept.

Let’s all start better conversations, so we all get better outcomes in our workplaces.