The Three Types of People You'll Meet When Implementing Change

We’d all like to think that our attempts to improve the workplace will be enthusiastically welcomed and embraced by our teams. In reality, though, when launching any new change initiative, you’ll encounter three types of people:

  • Champions. They’re inspired by the possibilities of change. In fact, they may already have tons of ideas on what and how things need to change, and will find ways to help it along.
  • Cynics. They actively oppose change and believe the organization or its leaders can’t change. This is often because they’ve been hurt before—someone tried to change the organization and failed, or the change stopped short of what was needed, making everything worse. Watch out: someone who seems open to change, but argues passionately that a proposed change just isn’t going won’t work, should still be considered a cynic.
  • Fence-sitters. They aren’t sure the organization will change—but they aren’t sure it won’t, either. Therefore, they’ll “sit it out” and wait for a sign of which way the wind is blowing before they lift a finger to help. This is most of the population.

Once you’ve identified who falls into which camps, you should adopt a different approach to win each over to your cause:

  • Get champions involved. Delegate projects and decision-making to them for areas they care about. Empower them to assemble others to help. Support their ideas—and if you can’t support all of their ideas, at least be careful not to rain on their parade. Instead, show appreciation for their enthusiasm, and be explicit about the reasoning for why that particular change won’t work.
  • Engage with cynics. Cynics’ negativity can be annoying, and it’s tempting to spend a lot of time and energy trying to persuade them to get with the program. Don’t. It’s actually more effective to draw them out, then hear them out. Cynics are just disappointed idealists, and unlike fence-sitters, they are highly engaged. If you can deliver something that matters to a cynic, they often become some of your best champions.
  • Leave the fence-sitters to others. Get some small wins on the board, and then let the champions and converted cynics take care of the fence-sitters. Once people see that things are moving forward and that others are on board, they will hop on the bandwagon too.

As tempting as it may be to write off the cynics or the fence-sitters, remember that all three types are likely to believe that their way of dealing with change is the only smart, tactical way. And in fact, all three are responding sensibly to some aspect of the organizational environment in the messy process of change. Instead of trying to show them why they are wrong, focus on making changes visible. If circumstances change, minds will change, too.


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