The Five Types of People You’ll Meet When Implementing Change

Not everyone responds to change the same way. By understanding individuals’ openness to change, you can focus your efforts on the right people, and more rapidly win converts to your cause.

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 five types of people:

  • Co-Pilots. These are the folks who will go to the mat for you and help you shape your change. Not only that, they have the skills to guide others through the change process.
  • 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, even if they don’t necessarily have the skills to deliver it (yet). They’re also crucial sources of influence who help rally the troops.
  • 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 group accounts for about 70% of your organization.
  • Skeptics. Skeptics draw their own conclusions, and won’t be convinced by enthusiastic promises of change that go against their personal experience. But they will be open to data, and their analysis and rigor can often transform a good idea into a great idea—or help you avoid a potentially bad one.
  • Cynics. They actively oppose change, and believe the organization or its leaders can’t change. Cynics and skeptics may initially look similar, but their actions will set them apart: while skeptics look for holes in your idea because they want to help you plug those holes, cynics look for holes so they can make them bigger and sink your idea.

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

  • Shower co-pilots with resources and attention. Get them involved early and often: organizational change can feel like a slog, but having “wing people” you can trust and confide in will go a long way to making your programs a success.
  • Get champions involved. Delegate projects and decision-making to them for areas they care about, and 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 skeptics. Skeptics’ constant questioning can be annoying, but they can be extremely useful members of a team. Unlike the fence-sitters, they care deeply about the work—they just don’t want to get their hopes up, because they’ve been hurt before. So look for evidence: find proof that you are engaged in real change, and incorporate their input. If you can deliver something that matters to them, they often become some of your best champions and co-pilots.
  • Leave the fence-sitters to others. Get some small wins on the board, and then let the champions and converted skeptics 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.
  • Avoid and minimize the impact of the cynics. While every team can benefit from a skeptic, no team needs a cynic. They’ll never be convinced, so any efforts to win them over will just slow you down. To the best of your ability, therefore, don’t engage them in the work.

As tempting as it may be to write off the skeptics or the fence-sitters, remember that every type is likely to believe that their way of dealing with change is the only smart, tactical way. And in fact, most 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.

Published June 4, 2018

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