It’s not about change – it’s about control

This blog was first published on Fresh Business Thinking on 1st October 2014.

It’s not about change – it’s about control

I stared at the blank screen in disbelief. I prodded the power button, it burst into life and then died again. It was 9.30pm at night, dark and I was somewhere deep in the Provence countryside. I’d been cycling since 6.30am and had ridden over the equivalent of Mont Blanc and Ben Nevis combined. I was tired and hungry and now my GPS device had failed. I had no idea where I was or which way to go. I got my phone out, 25% battery left, but I knew that with the GPS enabled that would soon disappear to nothing.

Out of control

That feeling of being out of control facing an uncertain future is exactly the same emotion most of experience when confronted with a significant and potentially life impacting change at work. When all is said and done, it is the raw fear of the unknown and the uncertainty that drives our response. The trouble is, it gets wrapped in all sorts of other excuses and false logic that disguise the real issue.


As a change management programme facilitator, I’ve stopped getting too hung up on the business outcome to be achieved. I find the most effective thing to do is to get inside the minds of those involved and impacted by the change. What’s their angle? What is it they fear about the change that they are not expressing? I don’t mean the ‘impact on the business’ stuff, I mean the deeply personal impact, as in ‘I can’t afford to lose my job’ or ‘I can’t afford to lose face by being demoted or having to report into another tier of management’ or even ‘I’m worried person X will get promoted and I won’t’.

Whatever the driver, the outcome is the same, resistance to the change. The tip of the iceberg is a well-argued logical business case against the change that makes perfect sense. It’s pretty much utterly irrelevant in my experience. It’s the iceberg under the surface you have to worry about, the hidden feelings and fears.

Black ice

Let’s think about control for a moment. When you are driving along a country road in the winter and the sub zero temperature warning chimes on the dashboard, you will probably drive a touch slower. If you experience some black ice, you will probably drive slower still. Why? To feel in control. The fear of the consequence of what could happen slows you down. If the road became too treacherous, you’d probably stop all together. In the same way, the announcement of change has people slowing up “What’s going on? What’s happening here?” They proceed with caution. For some, an opportunity will open up and they will accelerate to take advantage of it. For others, the perceived consequences will have them go very slowly until they can make sense of it all.

What to do

If I want to help people with change, I have to understand their perception of the consequences. Armed with this information the next step is to help them feel in control. If this means they are likely to lose their job then it’s about helping them get control of preparing themselves for hunting for a new role. If it means demotion it means helping them think through the cost of this versus the price of moving elsewhere. If I can help the organisation help people in this way, or do it myself, then I can help make the change happen.

Controlling consultants

We need to think more broadly about control. I’m spending a lot of time at the moment facilitating discussions between business consultants and their customers. The consultants have been paid substantial fees for helping the organisation implement change, but the working relationship is fractious and unproductive. The consultants are seen as simply trying to expand the amount of fees they can charge. The employees feel impotent in the face of their recommendations, they are impacted by them and yet cannot influence them. Meanwhile the consultants see the employees as unhelpful and resistant.

Take it back to its core set of issues and we can begin to see the real drivers. The consultants are paid on results. Each person has to demonstrate to their boss that they are delivering what they have been asked to do. The consequences of failing will impact their reputation and future success. And yet they have no power. They can only ask and influence the customer to do what they need to happen. They feel frustrated and impotent in the face of resistance. Typically they will then tend to push harder and harder to get what they want.

In the company, employees see the consultants as having all the power and none of the responsibility. They are seen to make recommendations that do not take into account all the facts. They can make suggestions that could have a very serious impact on each person’s future. Why would you reach out to help someone who could hurt you? You might, but probably only to mitigate the damage.

Getting it together

Putting both sides in control, is about helping reframe the way of working together such that people can mitigate their fears and concerns and identify a way of working together seen to be in their mutual interest. It’s about helping people feel in control.

Mapping my future

When my GPS failed, I needed to get in control of the situation. It was getting late, I was tired and getting cold. So I phoned a friend. Town by town, road by road, junction by junction he guided me to my destination. A short phone call every half an hour or so helped put me back in control. This way my phone battery lasted the distance. Someone knew where I was should anything go wrong. My spirits lifted, my optimism and enthusiasm returned and the last few miles passed quickly.

My three top tips for managing change

1. Think about the people not the issue. This means being empathetic. I mean really empathetic, getting right inside their heads to imagine what it’s like to be them and experience what they must be feeling. Then check that your perception of how it might be for them is valid. This requires you to get their trust.

2. Put people in control. Having worked out where they might feel out of control, think through how you might get that control back. The more in control people feel the greater their level of confidence and the faster they will be prepared to make the change.

3. When you are struggling with something someone else is proposing – ask yourself why you feel that way? What are the consequences that are driving your resistance? The better you get at understanding your own thought processes the better you will be at helping other people manage theirs.

Dominic Irvine © 2014 All rights asserted

Read our case study on how we helped people feel in control over what was happening around them and to them during the restructuring of one of our clients.