Communication Leadership: Overcome Resistance

By Tim Barouch

Great leaders make difficult decisions with high stakes. These decisions change organizations by shifting their strategic priorities, and the results can be painful for some. For this reason, great leaders understand that it is crucial that stakeholders support their visions and buy into new organizational trajectories.

The more controversial the decision, the more difficult it is to achieve that support. One obstacle for achieving buy-in is your audience’s tendency to engage in motivated reasoning, a phenomenon that Dan Kahan describes as,  “the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal.” When a football fan chalks up a controversial call against his team as referee bias, or when a climate skeptic explains an uptick in severe weather as a random fluke, they may be engaging in motivated reasoning – filtering knowledge in a manner that affirms their own personal world view. Practically speaking, this human tendency means that your important audiences likely have a significant number of people whose world views may influence how they receive your message. Audiences selectively highlight evidence that justifies their own deeply held values, and disregard evidence that tends to challenge their beliefs.

Motivated Reasoning Can Keep You From Executing Your Vision

This phenomenon can have disastrous consequences for your organization. Research has shown that motivated reasoning causes employees to disregard sound economic reasons for organizational change, preferring to believe that management decisions are made for managers’ self interest. Making matters worse, when communicating decisions on difficult issues about which even the best minds disagree, leaders sometimes go too far with confident displays that their chosen path is surely the only right one to follow. Don’t the best leaders show confidence in their decisions? Yes, but don’t overdo it when motivated reasoning is in play. Pronouncing certainty about a particular decision can deepen conflicts between groups with different views. The more confident and certain you are, the more that motivated reason can harden into stubborn, impenetrable resistance to your message. This means that a leader who tries to inspire employees to follow their vision by speaking with confidence on difficult issues is probably having the opposite effect on the exact people they wish to persuade!

Communicate Smarter to Combat Motivated Reasoning

So, are you simply doomed to the whims of your audience’s different values in these pivotal moments? Not in the slightest! Since you can’t forcibly change minds by piling on reason after reason for a tough decision, show some communicative savvy by implementing these two techniques.

Acknowledge counterarguments. When done properly, this simple effort shows your audience that you grasp the complexity and difficulty of hard decisions, and don’t take them lightly. And for those in your audience who strongly resist your message, this display can show them that their opponents don’t cling blindly to their beliefs (Sherman, Nelson, and Ross, 2003). Showing would-be opponents this gesture can soften their opposition, and it can defuse concerns that leadership decisions are driven by bias or skewed perceptions of reality. This technique can help gain committed followers for your short-term priorities and long-term vision.

Affirm the values of would-be opponents. Craft your message in a way that explains your vision, while affirming the values of those who might resist your message. Leaders forget to affirm opposing values for a variety of reasons – they may think that it’s a ‘soft skill’ that runs counter to hard-headed problem focus or that it prevents them from staying on message. But affirming a range of values should be a part of the message when communicating difficult decisions and organizational changes. This affirmation can reassure skeptical stakeholders that there is room for their values in the future that you lay out (Kahan et al., 2008). Imagining a place in that future for them will make it easier for them to support your decision by cultivating a feeling that you’re in it together.

Need advice for overcoming resistance and achieving buy-in for your vision? Contact us at, tweet us at @VocableComms, or call us at 919-421-7100.