Hardwired Human - Changing Change


I vividly recall the moment I questioned conventional thinking about change management – and how conventional thinking about “change” misrepresents what really happens when people face change. And that misrepresentation of behaviour has led to inappropriate leadership of change.

About mid-way through my career I became head of HR for an IBM joint venture company in Australia. As well as winning IT outsourcing contracts involving transitions of large numbers of staff into the JV, we also managed the transition of employees from their parent organisations of IBM, Lend Lease and Telstra into the JV company. 

The team and I started along that journey accepting the assumption that “people resist change”. But soon we noticed that not everyone resisted the change. Some people seemed very relaxed with the change of employer and some, including from public sector organisations, even seemed to welcome it. Not everyone welcomed the change, but enough to cause us to conclude that by definition not everyone was resisting change.  

Was it a case of the exception proving the rule or was it that what we were observing in the field was proving the conventional statement untrue? It ends up being the latter. Some years later I found the explanation in human instincts, particularly from the work of Professor Nigel Nicholson.  

Part of our challenged to conventional thinking was also to question the Kubler-Ross grief cycle as it might apply to change management in organisations. Kubler-Ross describes the five stages of grief and is a popular change management model. But in these IT transitions I noticed that some people did not demonstrate a transition through the five stages of grief. Initially convinced by conventional thinking I thought that maybe some people go through the five stages at such speed it is not observable. But I discovered that Kubler-Ross’s research focused on people’s reaction to their imminent death or the imminent death of a loved one. It’s a fair stretch to take a model from the ultimate life experience to apply that model to changes in organisations.   

What Really Happens  

If we were wired as a species to resist change we’d be still living in caves. Or at a personal level there have been changes in your life which have been highly beneficial and celebrated – and not to be resisted. And sure, there have no doubt been changes in your life you would prefer not to have experienced. But it’s not “change” itself and it’s not “resistance”. 

What happens is that primarily two of our 9 instincts drive our reaction when we hear about a change at work. The first is that we are compelled to classify. We make sense of our experiences by classifying into binary alternatives of either “good” or “bad”. And second, if we can’t yet classify, such as how this change might affect me, then mostly we err of the side of the negative, driven by our instinct of Loss Aversion to keep out of harm’s way.  

Once we move from the self-fulfilling negative belief that “people resist change” then we open-up practical, positive leadership actions to better manage change in organisations. 

Analyse for Loss  

Part of the planning for implementing a change should be to analyse potential loss concerns of staff. For losses that are real, plan what actions you might take to minimise the loss. One client implemented a car parking subsidy for a limited time when people were losing free car parking in an office move.

Part of the analysis of loss will involve determining any segments of staff that need to be considered. 

If a change involves real loss for some people, handle the change as loss for those individuals. People can cope with loss, but find it harder if their feelings are diminished or ignored.


Hierarchy of Loss Concerns  

In processing change, people will go through a hierarchy or prioritisation of change concerns. One client used this concept in a restructure. The leaders worked through a prioritisation list from loss of job, change in team, change is manager, change in location, change in processes and so on. Once a loss concern is covered, even if that answer is not favourable, people jump to the next loss concern.  

As one leader in this project observed, knowing about loss aversion allowed him to be less critical of people’s reactions. Whereas in the past he criticised his staff for whinging, he could now see they were progressing though loss aversion concerns. 


Classifying Based on Emotions

In communicating change, bear in mind that people’s classification (or sense they make of the change) is based on how they feel at the very moment they hear about the change. This is not a spin strategy but allows you to give the change the best chance of being accepted.

Rumour - Plausibility

Avoid a vacuum in communication. Even if there is no new news, communicate. The problem with a vacuum us that rumour fills it. The reason for rumour is that people are trying to make the change plausible. Monitor the rumour mill: it will guide you to any gaps in your communication. 


The Gossip Test

Given that people are going to gossip, then use this human behaviour productively by applying the “gossip test”. What do you want people to talk about, say after the change is announced? Deciding what you want people to talk about will drive your leadership actions. 

It’s no wonder that in organisational life change has a bad name. It’s because we have been misguided by stated or unstated assumptions. By going back to basics about human nature we can change the way we think and lead change. 


Andrew O'Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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