How to manage change in a world full of humans

Change isn’t easy. If it was, I suspect we would be a far more advanced civilisation by now, having learned from myriad mistakes along the way. In fairness, and to provide balance to what I want to write about, we’re talking about humans, and it’s human nature (and slightly cynical of me) that we never really learn from mistakes. So, how does an understanding of anthropology help you get to grips with change in the workplace?

I would begin by acknowledging that, if you’re the instigator of change, it’s not going to be easy. There will always be negative reactions to new ideas, and pushback from people in senior positions who may feel undermined by your very presence. This is natural. It’s human nature. To acknowledge that it’s part and parcel of your change strategy is a good, positive first step in ensuring you don’t give up at the first hurdle. Many people do give up, which is evidence that purveyors of change are incredibly skilled people.

It’s a sad fact that many unqualified people have responsibility for change thrust upon them, and with the best will in the world, the unqualified are not going to make a dent. This is because people will find a way to ignore your ideas if you have no solid strategy on how to implement them. Humans can be like that, so don’t take it to heart.

Your best bet is to hire someone from outside of your organisation to help instigate change. Yes, people will be wary of the newcomer and may treat them with suspicion, but the change expert is aware of this and has the experience to weather the first barrage of objections. They train for this sort of thing, and annoyingly remain positive and headstrong (when all about them lose theirs). I quite like this willingness to ride storms with positive energy and discipline. It’s also about being consistent with your strategy, so people know you’re spirited and tenacious. Perception is a powerful tool to wield when the rock face seems insurmountable.

The ‘outsider’ (let’s call him Dave) adapts quickly to his new environment. You may watch him with suspicion, but he’s watching you too. He’s looking at how people work, who influences others, who chats at the water cooler, who gets their head down for real work, and who spends their afternoon on Facebook. He surmises fairly quickly who the hiders are and who the workers are. (Every business I’ve worked in had both of these.) His job is to instigate change, so he has to swiftly recognise who can help him do that. If he was Dave from 2001: A Space Odyssey, he would be the Dave that circumnavigates Hal and would open the damn pod bay doors on his own.

Dave avoids your legacy politics and the sometimes difficult, complicated relationships that exist between people who’ve probably been there too long. Instead, he focuses on those who are open to change, and open to risk, and open to moving in directions that challenge them. These are the people who still thrive on learning, and experience has shown me that these people are a healthy mix of young and old, with little regard for the stumbling blocks of hierarchy. Dave will recruit them and feed off their energy and enthusiasm for changing the status quo. If he has to report only to management, that’s counterproductive, and may serve to alienate the people who will inevitably instigate change. Dave needs to have a clear path to engage with people at all levels, garnering trust and building productive working relationships along the way.

Over time, Dave connects to so many vibrant, enthusiastic purveyors of change. This is another quirk of human nature: We are attracted to people like us, so it stands to reason that risk-averse, change-resistant naysayers will confirm their bias as a collective, and Dave will do the opposite with his new chums. I did say that change isn’t easy, didn’t I?

If you’re a leader in a position of influence, and you’re a good leader, it’s worth recognising the skills and enthusiasm of the people who run your business. Are they adaptable, headstrong and passionate about what they do, or have they become stuck in a groove, unwilling (or unable) to find a way out? Perhaps you can help them. Better still, and if your business desperately needs it, you could hire someone like Dave, who will come in and help your business open the pod bay doors wide, wide open.

By Shaun

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