Explainers

Why People Demand Change… and Then Don’t Participate

Use the SCARF model to diagnose why even asked-for changes are being undercut

Have you ever announced a change initiative in an organization… and nothing happened? You sought out input from teams, and everyone was clear on what needed to change. You rolled out the initiative to both great fanfare and a defined action plan. But despite your efforts, folks simply didn’t participate, and you found yourself wondering: “They said they want change… So why aren’t they helping to make it happen?”

One way to diagnose potential resistance to participating in change, or just plain inaction, is to use a framework like the SCARF model. Developed by NeuroLeadership Institute Director Dr. David Rock, it identifies the five areas that influence how people behave in social situations: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Applying this model, we can quickly see how even a supposedly in-demand change can be undercut.

Status

An organizational change can obviously have a major impact on our relative position to other people within the organization (e.g., a new org chart can shift power dramatically), but even participating in a change program can affect our status in most organizations. In a well-designed change program, those who participate should gain status and be rewarded for their efforts, but unfortunately, in many organizations, change is often dumped on those without status. If anything, senior-most leaders and star players are often exempt from participation, which sends a clear signal to the rest of the institution. 

It’s a common frustration: staff seem eager for change but then fail to rally behind making it happen. But instead of losing your patience or moving quickly to blame, think of initial hesitancy as a useful signal of an issue in the design of the change that merits further exploration.

If status is threatened by a change or participating in a change program, you might expect to see envy–such as folks arguing for their own promotion–as individuals make the shrewd calculation that participation could actually harm their social capital. To address this, find other ways to reward participants socially, like first dibs on a new opportunity. Double down on whatever puts people in the spotlight.

Certainty

Beyond the day-to-day experimentation required to operate in a new way, change may lead people to question their future at the organization: will there still be a role for them when all is said and done? Will they be blamed if the change fails, impacting future career growth? A lack of certainty can also trigger threat responses: a shifted project due date which under normal circumstances might lead to mild grumbling, for example, might instead get a disproportionately angry response due to stress.

Beyond training, assuage peoples’ deeper fears by thinking about what kind of a safety net can you offer. If the worst-case scenario does occur and change fails, what will happen to them? Of course, some changes can’t come with the safety net—they must be made or things will become dire—in which case, make sure you’ve explained the trade-offs to your team, and emphasized why taking the risk is ultimately less risky.

Autonomy

Not surprisingly, change threatens individuals’ sense of control: they may feel that change is being done to them, rather than something they’ve had a hand in shaping. Even leaders’ well-intentioned attempts to provide guidance can be misinterpreted as micromanagement. Worse, micromanaging tendencies quickly spread through the organization—as individuals both try to avoid being punished for doing something wrong, and because it’s how they’re being controlled—stopping change in its tracks.

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If someone feels their autonomy is being threatened, they’ll try to reclaim it in any way they can, whether that’s clawing back control or even “quiet quitting,” where they take it back without a direct confrontation. Instead, think about how teams can have more say in the change. Just as importantly, evaluate leaders’ reactions when teams do take control. Nothing shuts down initiative faster than teams getting a slap on the wrist when they do something a leader disagrees with, especially if it’s based on personal preference, rather than a strategic decision.

Relatedness

Change often requires working with new people who we don’t know or trust. This means teams have to take the time to re-establish how to work together, and in some cases, they may even have to start by determining who they need to work with to get things done. If they don’t know who to turn to for help, momentum quickly stalls out. Ultimately, this disconnection leaves folks feeling isolated, disengaged, and collaboration and creativity start to fall apart.

To address threats to relatedness, reflect on whether you’ve given people the information and time they need to truly form teams, rather than a group of individuals. This could involve very practical steps like role definition and direct introductions, but it will also require trust-building and giving teams a shared purpose. 

Fairness

Finally, change can feel simply unfair: if their division was working relatively well, why should they have to do things differently? An initiative that requires additional work on top of their existing responsibilities could even feel like punishment. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that certain leaders or divisions will be perceived as coming out “ahead” to the detriment of others. 

If fairness is threatened, you may see folks seeking justice or focusing on moral issues, questioning how a change was decided, by whom, and for whose benefit. Are leaders being transparent and consistent about why the organization is making these changes? This could also be a wake-up call to review both incentives and workload: are the burdens and rewards of change being equally distributed, or is one group receiving an unequal load? 

From Hesitancy to Helping

As usual, there’s no one silver bullet that will suddenly convert everyone into willing participants in a change. But instead of trying to mandate participation, first think of initial hesitancy as a useful signal of an issue in the design of the change that merits further exploration.

Published August 28, 2022

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