A while ago, a friend asked my advice about dealing with an ‘apathetic and cynical’ member of her management team. The team were tasked with driving through some sweeping changes in her Primary Care Trust (I probably need to explain to non-UK readers that this is part of the UK’s National Health Service).

My friend was annoyed with her colleague because he was so negative about the prospects for change. Unlike the rest of the team, who were absolutely passionate about making the change happen, this guy was showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm. In fact, he had been known to say that “It’s never going to work.”  How could she get him to be more enthusiastic?

I thought about this for a minute, and it occurred to me that “Mr Apathetic” was the best ally she could have for bringing the desired changes in successfully. What’s more, in the unlikely event that she did manage to convert him to her way of thinking, she would lose that valuable resource and the changes would actually be more likely to fail. Here’s why….

You may have noticed that most people don’t like change in their workplace all that much. This is a contrast to those of us who are change agents by profession, or who are interested in personal development, and it’s easy for us to forget it. We like change ourselves, and we prefer to hang out with like-minded people.

My friend is a typical example – high-energy, confident, optimistic. She sees what could be better in her organisation, gets frustrated, and wants to change it. Most of her management team colleagues are the same way.

But – and it’s easy to forget – most people aren’t like that. They just want to come into work, do their job, take the  money and get on wth their lives, ideally without management (or still worse, management consultants) disrupting their well-ordered routines with changes or reorganisations.

Chances are they’ve lived through change before, and it wasn’t pretty. Maybe there were redundancies. Maybe they had to reapply for their jobs – a scenario where the best outcome they could usually hope for is that after going through a great deal of stress and uncertainty, they get more or less their old job back and their conditions of work haven’t been eroded too significantly.

Most significantly, they’ve heard it all before. A quick search (without having any specific studies to hand) suggests that between 2/3 and three-quarters of corporate change initiatives fail. So as soon as someone starts trying to sell them on the need for change and the improvements it will lead to, their defences go up.

How to talk about change to people who aren’t change agents

In her excellent book Words That Change Minds, Shelle Rose Charvet tells the story of what happened to typing pools (for our younger readers, groups of people whose job was typing out documents and who often stayed in the same job for 15 or 20 years) when word processors were invented. The change agents who introduced the new machines were excited – “It’s a totally new invention which is going to revolutionize the way you work!”

Results: panic, resistance, insecurity, and many people feeling they were too old to change.

How they could have introduced the word processing machines to the typists: “We’re upgrading the typewriters with these new machines which are a bit better. Look, they have the same keyboard layout, and they’ll enable you to work a little more easily, faster, and more effectively, and make it easier to correct mistakes. We’ll show you the correct procedures for using them.”

In the second example, the words used to describe the change present the upgrade as a gradual evolution rather than a revolution, so it appears much less disruptive and scary. Shelle suggests that around 70% of people prefer things staying more or less the same, rather than seeking out dramatic changes.

Why “Mr Apathetic” is valuable

Change agents, whether they are management consultants, coaches, or Appreciative Inquiry practitioners, will usually be in the other 30%. Management consultants, of course, love change. That’s why they do a job which is all about changing things, with a new assignment every six months or a year.

If you are an Appreciative Inquiry practitioner – again, you probably love change, and you certainly don’t fear it. The promise of rapid, effective change methods is probably one of the things that drew you to study Appreciative Inquiry in the first place.

And it’s easy for us to forget that most people aren’t as enthusiastic as we are, and that we need to modify the way we talk about change so as not to get their backs up. This is why “Mr Apathetic” is so valuable – he acts as a reality check and a reminder of how most people in the organization really feel about change, even if they don’t dare say it to their manager’s face.

Remember that the way he sees the world makes perfect sense – to him. He has plenty of reference experiences of failed change that he can point to (and of course, his experiences of changes that worked won’t be at the forefront of his mind so it won’t be them that he uses as his yardstick to evaluate any new changes). Only if you can present the need for change in a way that your most cynical colleague can understand and get behind does the change initiative stand a fighting chance of winning over the majority of people in your organisation.

How to do this? A common criticism of positive approaches to change (like solution focused practice, positive psychology, and Appreciative Inquiry) by people who haven’t studied these approaches is that they view the world through rose-coloured spectacles and ignore problems, pretending that everything’s wonderful.

You need to frame your positive change initiative as a more effective way of tackling these problems and changing the focus to what you want instead of the problems. After all, if the usual analysis and finding who was to blame could have solved the problems, they would already have been solved.

If people are constantly focused on solving immediate problems, it’s not surprising that they can start to feel a bit of ‘learned helplessness’ if the attempted fixes don’t turn out as planned.

When you invite them to focus for a change on strengths rather than weaknesses, achievements rather than failures, and what they are proud of rather than where they have fallen short, they start to redress the balance in how they see the world. When they remember times when they have made a difference, they will start to feel that something better is possible, and their cynicism will start to dissolve.

Additionally, as the ‘Default Mode Network’ in their neurology starts to become active, they will be more open to new ideas, more ready to communicate with their colleagues, and more optimistic about change.

Related: Why You Should Care For ‘Negative’ People In Your Organization – and how you can turn them round

Appreciative Inquiry is the best format I know for engaging people with change. To find out more, subscribe to Coaching Leaders Secrets and download my free guide to using Appreciative Inquiry with your team, or check out the next Practical Appreciative Inquiry online facilitator training.

Image: Diogenes the Cynic – by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Why The Cynic On Your Team Is Your Best Friend In Managing Change

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