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It’s Smarter to Work with Human Nature in Leading Change
Business Economy
Andrew O’Keeffe
Andrew O’Keeffe
is the director of Hardwired Humans and works with organizations to align their leadership practices to human instincts. He is the author of Hardwired Humans and The Boss.

In the 100 years of leadership practice, one subject we haven’t yet solved is change management. Leaders invariably experience the same frustrations in implementing change and repeat the same mistakes. The proposition here is that we’ve been using the wrong assumption and misread the human response.

Conventional thinking would have us believe that “people resist change.” But that can’t be true otherwise we would still be living in caves.

Through the lens of evolutionary psychology, we are able to first, make sense of what really happens when people face change so that second, leaders can transform the way they lead change. In this article, I will give one action point that makes a big difference.

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The Light-Bulb Moment
I vividly recall the moment 22 years ago when I realized that “people resist change” can’t by definition be true. At the time I was the head of HR of an IBM joint venture in Australia and we were winning major IT outsourcing contracts involving the transition of in-scope staff into IBM’s employment. Sure enough, a lot of in-scope people didn’t welcome the change of employment (which struck me as fair enough). But there were some people who welcomed the change. If some people were happy about the change then “resistance” isn’t the answer. What else explains it? We started to work from a different assumption and implement initiatives that worked.

Later, first from the insight from Nigel Nicholson, we had an explanation that what we were observing and our successful initiatives were based on human nature.

What Really Happens with Change
There are three elements of the human condition that most explain people’s reaction to change: Emotion Before Reason, First Impressions to Classify and Loss Aversion. Here is how it unfolds. When change is presented to people we have a need to classify – to make sense of the possible impact of change. We do so from our very first impression based on our feelings (emotions). Our classification categories are binary in nature, on a variation of “good” versus “bad.” When people first hear about a change they are compelled to classify the change as either “gain” (good) or “loss” (bad). But of course generally when people first hear about a change they are not yet able to really know the impact of the change to them; they have trouble classifying. And this is where Loss Aversion kicks in. If we can’t accurately classify, then the default is to assume the worst – to keep out of harm’s way and to avoid any threat. This is because humans, like other creatures, are more driven by the avoidance of loss than the opportunity to gain.

Influence the Classifying Moment
In our framework of applying human nature to lead change there are “9 Essentials” that leaders attend to. Here I’ll just give a snapshot of one: Influence the Classifying Moment.

Knowing that people are compelled to instantly classify based on how they are feeling, leaders should plan for the classifying seconds. At the classifying moment people are going to decide either (a) this change is “okay” or (b) this change is “bad”, with the default to the negative. Given that most changes do indeed turn out to be okay, we are going to try to avoid the weeks and months of anxiety and distraction pending people working out that the change was okay.

For example, one leader coached in human instincts faced the challenge of implementing a restructure. How would he influence how people felt the very moment they heard about the change? He decided to telephone each direct report affected by the change and give them a quick explanation of his plans. In that initial phone call, each person said to the leader, “Yes, we’ve been feeling the same that things need to change. Thanks for letting me know.” They have classified the change and the leader did not leave that moment to chance and gossip. The rough rule of thumb is if you announce change by email then you have squandered the classifying moment.

The concept is scalable. A project manager of a large SAP implementation, in using human instincts, decided there was a key person in each client location affected by the change. The project team phoned each of those individuals at a key stage of the project. Those client individuals were reassured by the phone contact. The implementation was smoother than is usually the case for large systems changes.

If we use human nature to decide our actions in implementing change then we have a predictive framework for knowing what will work and what won’t.

For a deeper dive, go to Andrew’s conversation with Max Beilby. If you want to get involved in transforming the workplace from an evolutionary perspective,consider joining TVOL’s Business Action Group, where you can interact directly with the likes of Max and Andrew.

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