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‘But I Don’t Wanna’: 6 Sources of Employee Resistance

“I forgot.” “I don’t want to.” “It’s not that serious.” “It won’t happen to me.”

If your employees are forgetting, ignoring, pushing back against or actively resisting the protections you’ve put in place to ensure their safety, then you know how frustrating it can be to get them to follow the rules.

Crafting a safety initiative so that you end up with employees who want to follow your safety procedures depends on addressing the driving causes of their resistance. Following are six sources of potential resistance and strategies you can use to help overcome each one.

  1. They don’t know.

The source of resistance could be a simple knowledge problem (i.e., they don’t know what they need to do). If employees are new to the workforce, the industry or your company, they need knowledge about how to do their jobs and how things are done around here. If they’re taking on new job responsibilities or you’re adding a new procedure or changing a process, they need training on these new work methods.

Strategy: You need to make sure your employees have the information they need to do their jobs at the level at which you expect them to perform. Be there as early as possible to provide that information and shape their experience. If you’re not there, they’re piecing together information, learning from their co-workers, and potentially creating bad habits that can take a lot of time and effort to correct.

  1. They’re confused.

Your employees may have too much information, bad information or conflicting information. They may not be explicitly aware that they’re confused. Instead, they might not feel very confident, and when people don’t feel confident, they hesitate. Hesitation may be expressed as employees taking longer to speak up, follow up or act.

Confusion also leads to inconsistency. Employees might follow the guideline one time, but no one confirmed for them that they did it correctly. Suddenly, they’re not sure if following the guideline was important or if they even did the right thing. As a result, they’re less likely to do it the next time. For many people, lack of confirmation and reassurance leads to uncertainty.

Strategy: When you want your team to take action, you want them to be crystal clear about what they need to do and when they need to do it. Break down the targeted behavior into the smallest steps, simplify the instructions, eliminate extraneous or conflicting guidance, and ensure that easily consumable reference materials are available.

Further, recognize and appreciate employees, either verbally or in writing, when they have taken the course of action you want them to take. In our recent work with a utility company to increase the amount of positive feedback foremen and site supervisors were giving their team, we found a direct increase in specific safety behaviors when leaders took the time and effort to acknowledge them.

  1. They encounter obstacles.

There are many types of obstacles your employees might encounter when it comes to applying your safety training. For example, they might have logistical problems. If they don’t have what they need where and when they need it, that’s an obstacle. If you’re asking employees to learn something new or adding a new responsibility, that’s an obstacle – because it’s going to require their time and effort. The newer the process, the more unfamiliar or awkward the behavior, or the more complex the task, the bigger the obstacle.

Strategy: One of the best ways to discover obstacles is to speak with employees about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it that way and what they think about changing it. To solicit honest and helpful feedback, conduct these interviews with a spirit of understanding. In our experience, there are often multiple underlying obstacles that likely require different strategies to resolve.

  1. They think they know better than you.

Every workplace has one: the know-it-all. To understand the know-it-all, you must understand that they derive a sense of significance from their information. Admitting that they were wrong or didn’t know something is embarrassing. It’s a blow to their self-esteem. As a result, the know-it-all fights to protect their knowledge because they’re actually fighting to protect their sense of worthiness. When you understand this about the know-it-all, you realize that going toe-to-toe with them about information can be futile as they’ll just move the goalposts of the conversation.

We should acknowledge that maybe they do know better than you. The know-it-all might have experiences on the job that you haven’t had. They might have had interactions with other co-workers or the general public that you’re not aware of. They might be doing the job differently than how you used to do it or how you would do it now. As a result, they have reason to believe that what you’re suggesting isn’t going to work. If they don’t think it’s going to work or that it’s even necessary, they will resist.

Strategy: Cultivating an attitude of humility around knowledge is key to creating a culture where people are less rigid about their knowledge and more willing to adapt to new, safer procedures as better information becomes available. This skill was identified by Adam Grant in his book “Think Again” as confident humility. In his words, it’s “having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem.”

When our firm trains on this skill, our goal is to inspire a sense of curiosity by helping attendees experience the limitations of what they thought they knew or perceived. Then we arm them with strategic questions they can deploy in any situation that will prompt their own critical thinking skills. You can download some of these questions at

In addition, confident humility needs to be modeled by company leadership and safety professionals over and over again. Employees need to see their leaders asking probing questions, fact checking, exploring for better information and changing course. Sharing the process of how you arrived at your decision is just as important as sharing the final decision. In leading by example, you create a culture in which people are less rigid about what they think they know right now and more curious about what else they might learn.

  1. They feel something bad isn’t going to happen to them.

People are not calculators who rationally weigh pros and cons to arrive at an accurate assessment of risk. People make guesses. Their guesses will probably involve factors like probability and severity. But they also include other factors like their past experiences, the news they’re reading, the talking heads they’re listening to and the conversations they’re having with their peers.

Another factor is the desire to not appear weak. You might refer to this as the macho attitude, but men are certainly not the only ones who engage in this sort of behavior. If you’re dealing with a work culture in which physical or emotional vulnerability is a factor in people’s risk calculations, then you better believe employees are going to ignore or push back on guidelines that they feel expose them to the risk of being judged by their peers.

Strategy: This is a difficult source of resistance to address. For many reasons, people will always struggle to accurately assess risk. However, they can get better at it with training. Be sure to provide continuous information on the risks your employees face with the different tasks involved in their work.

Reducing the desire to avoid personal or physical vulnerability takes a concerted effort, often in the form of employees repeatedly watching the risk calculation be proved untrue. When leaders display vulnerability by sharing a past difficult time, or when a co-worker is rewarded for taking the time to avoid lifting heavy equipment, employees will see evidence that vulnerability is not a significant risk factor.

  1. They’re rebelling.

Some people not only want to make their own decisions, but they thrive on disagreement as well. They love going against the grain and going their own way – even when it’s obvious that their way is wrong and dangerous. These people do not want to be told what to do and can be especially difficult and frustrating.

Tribal identity can also foster a rebellion dynamic. We live in a day and age of polarization. It seems that just about everything can be made into an us-versus-them dynamic, especially when it comes to politics. However, tribes can also develop between the day shift versus the night shift, union versus nonunion, workers versus management, millennials versus boomers, and more. Asking people to do things counter to their tribe is like asking a Broncos fan to wear a Raiders jersey or a Colts fan to wear a Patriots jersey. It’s not going to happen, and people are going to have very strong feelings about you even asking.

Strategy: The best way to avoid triggering a “Don’t tell me what to do!” response is to make the safety initiative a collaborative effort in which employee input is sought, considered and incorporated where possible.

Be sure to allow know-it-alls and rebels a graceful exit. Without making people feel stupid or wrong, refocus employees on something that is more important. In other words, discover what people value more than their tribe, such as getting the job done, and focus on that.

In addition, foster a unique tribal identity that embraces the entire organization and unites everyone in a common mission. Use your organization’s mission, vision and values to not only inspire your team but build the case for what you’re asking them to do.


Influencing other people requires knowing what they need to hear and how they need to hear it. While it takes time and effort in the beginning to accurately diagnose where your safety initiative is going to run into problems, you’ll be more effective in the long run.

It’s also never too late. If you find your initiative is not having the impact you want, start having conversations with your employees. The sooner you discover why your employees are resisting, the sooner you can address them.

About the Author: Sharon Lipinski is the Habit SuperHero and CEO of Habit Mastery Consulting (, which helps organizations increase their targeted safety behavior by up to 150%. She is a Certified Gamification for Training developer, certified CBT for insomnia instructor, speaker, TV personality and coach dedicated to helping people create the right habits so they can be happier, healthier and safer at home and in their work.

Leadership Development