When Resistance Turns Into a Fight

Brad C. Anderson

The fellowship had evidence the Seniors Program delayed frailty. They knew how to postpone a terrible affliction. Yet, when physicians’ economic rationality concluded that doctors were unable to adopt the program, the fellowship bent over backward to create new systems to change the program’s cost structure.

If the fellowship knew how to delay frailty, why not force doctors to adopt it? The BC Health Authority’s CEO championed the program. The fellowship could have asked him to drive compliance, but this never happened.

Should we not fight for what we believe is right?

Fighting in this context refers to the direct use of power to coerce others to comply with your wishes. Rather than seeking an agreement, you wish to force someone’s unwilling compliance. They, in turn, use their power to protect themselves and defeat you.

Fighting is always an option. There are times when a confrontation may be necessary. There are at least four dangers, however, with allowing a disagreement to escalate to a fight, so choose your battles thoughtfully.

  1. You might lose. Even if you have more power and authority in the organization, the possibility exists that you will lose an outright fight. The costs of losing a confrontation can be severe. The project you want to succeed in may die permanently. You may lose influence in your organization. You might lose your job.
  2. You will create enemies. Whether you win or lose a fight, you will create enemies. In an organization, people and groups need to work together on many projects over long periods. If you make an enemy over one project, you compromise your ability to progress on all the other projects over which they have influence now and in the future.[1][2]
  3. The first casualty of war is rationality. Remember from Chapter VI that one of the tactics of power is ignoring rationalityWhen people and groups seek to overpower others, rationality vanishes. During conflicts, people are not interested in rationality. Instead, they focus on survival and defeating their enemy. Bald power plays dominate, pushing rationality aside.[3] 
  4. You miss out on the potential of collective reasoning. In the above example, technocratic rationality told doctors one thing, economic rationality another. Economic rationality speaks to values of sustainability and robustness. Yes, we want our healthcare system to prevent frailty, but we also want it to be sustainable and robust. It is not that technocratic and economic rationality conflict, but rather that they speak to different aspects of our healthcare system’s overall challenge. The healthcare system does not “win” if one rationality defeats another. The system needs both rationalities, as well as others, to thrive. True innovative breakthroughs come not from defeating other rationalities but from blending them through collective reasoning.

Recovering After a Confrontation

Leaders have to make decisions, which invariably upset someone. Sometimes people choose to strike at you, forcing you into a fight. There are occasions when people’s interests are irreconcilable. Despite the best intentions, fights sometimes happen.

Should you find yourself in a battle, proceed with an awareness of the dangers of fighting listed above. Act to mitigate those dangers as you can. Pay particular attention to the second danger, the enemies you might make. It is those enemies that increase the risk you will find yourself embroiled in future confrontations.

Once a fight ends, think about who might harbour resentment. Can you make peace with them? How might you establish a stable relationship?

‘Stable’ is, perhaps, the operative word. You may not like each other, and resentment may linger. Still, it may be possible to establish a system (i.e., bureaucratic rationality) that reduces the risk of future encounters escalating to conflict.


Examples: The Cold War

During the Cold War between the USA and USSR, which lasted from the late 1940s to 1991, the threat of nuclear war between these two nations was a severe concern. Incidents like the Cuban Missle Crisis highlighted the dangers that conflicts might quickly escalate to nuclear weapons’ launch.

These nations used several tools of bureaucratic rationality to reduce this risk and maintain stability. Each nation signed several treaties (documentation) that allowed each nation to inspect the nuclear arsenal of the other (processes). They further set up direct communication lines between the presidents of the USA and USSR so they could contact each other at any time in case of emergency (processes).

These systems of sharing information and communication reduced the chance of minor incidents spiralling out of control to catastrophe. Even though these nations felt a great deal of animosity towards each other, they managed to create systems that maintained stability and lessened the odds of escalating conflict.


So far, this chapter has explored how you might use insights into values, rationality, and power to create effective organizational action. This desired action only happens, however, if people put in the time and effort to make things happen. The following section explores how we can use the framework of organizational wisdom to motivate people to act.

Key Takeaways

  • Fights between groups have several risks
    • You might lose
    • You will create enemies
    • The first casualty of battle is rationality.
    • You miss out on the potential of blending rationalities.
  • Recovering after a fight
    • Seek to redress the risks of enemies you may have made
    • Even if you cannot reconcile relations, you can implement systems to maintain stability to reduce the risk of future conflicts.

  1. Denis, J.-L., Lamothe, L., & Langley, A. (2001). The Dynamics of Collective Leadership and Strategic Change in Pluralistic Organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 44(4), 809–837.
  2. Rodriguez, C., Langley, A., Beland, F., & Denis, J.-L. (2007). Governance, Power, and Mandated Collaboration in an Interorganizational Network. Administration & Society, 39(2), 150–193.
  3. Flyvbjerg, B. (1998). Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice. Chicago, United States: The University of Chicago Press.


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When Resistance Turns Into a Fight Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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