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Empathy and the Fear of Change

Businessman with umbrella standing under the rain.
Image Credit: © Masksim meljov – #14324270

As practitioners of business analysis, we help facilitate valuable change in organisations.  We help our organisations strive towards their organisational objectives, and in doing so we help to define, instil and reinforce change. Yet, whilst we may be progressing objectives that seem exciting and empowering to us, we might find that some stakeholders resist the change. We might even sense that some people fear change altogether.


When talking about resistance and fear of change, I am always reminded of a situation I observed over a decade ago, which is as relevant now as it was then. A contact centre was rationalising its processes and office space, and started to standardise workers’ desk space. It was seemingly positive and non-contentious—people would get new equipment—yet one seemingly insurmountable issue emerged. Yet it seemed so minor


The Problem with the Post Tray

Historically some people had been given three post trays rather than two, and the new standard layout limited everyone to having only two trays.  The people who had three trays tended to be people who had been with the organisation the longest, and they were very vocal and reluctant to give up their extra tray. This issue seemed to over-spill into general cynicism and resistance to the initiative generally. As a BA, it is easy to think people are being petty. I mean, how important can a plastic postal tray really be? Yet it is important that we find out.


In order to understand issues like this, it is important that we get closer to the reason for the reluctance or resistance.  Perhaps, for example:

  • The extra tray has become a ‘status symbol’ differentiating those who are perceived as more ‘senior’
  • Staff weren’t consulted so don’t feel bought in
  • The extra tray is used for a genuine purpose that wasn’t considered

Of course, there may be many other reasons too. These are symptoms of distress and disengagement and ignoring them is dangerous. Getting to understand the reasons, and truly empathising and engaging will help us co-create a solution that works all round.


Change Is Scary and Inconvenient

It is often the case that even valuable and beneficial change actually causes inconvenience in the short term. Sometimes it’s necessary for new processes and ways of working to ‘bed in’. Sometimes change might literally destroy knowledge that a stakeholder already has or may require significant re-learning. This can act as a major barrier to change.


It’s easy to think that as BAs we are immune to this fear of change, but of course we are not. When change affects us personally, we will feel just as unsettled as any other stakeholder.  Perhaps it will help to consider an example…


Why Aren’t We Using Dvorak Keyboards?

If you speak English as a first language, you are probably sitting at a computer or device with a QWERTY keyboard. This keyboard layout was chosen back in the days of manual typewriters, specifically to avoid jamming. It is believed it was designed minimise the chance of two adjacent keys being simultaneously pressed. This creates more motion for the typist’s hands, more stretching, and (potentially) more strain than is necessary.


A layout that is reportedly superior—the ‘Dvorak’ keyboard’—which reduces stretching and strain was patented by Dr. August Dvorak & Dr. William Dealey in 1936.    With the advent of computers, and no need to worry about jamming typewriter hammers, we could transition to the new layout tomorrow.


So, let me ask you this. If somebody came into your office tomorrow and replaced your keyboard with a Dvorak layout, how would you feel? 


I know how I would feel—annoyed! I would have to re-learn a skill that I rely on every day (typing!). It would slow me down in the short term, and—even though I know there is a long term benefit—I’d struggle to be enthused. Chances are you’d feel annoyed too if this were to happen to you, re-learning is hard.



When change is implemented in organisations, stakeholders often have to re-learn in a similar way—and they are likely to experience similar justified feelings of reluctance.


Empathising with our stakeholders whilst ensuring we maintain an ongoing healthy focus on co-creation will help us achieve change that sticks. Ensuring that there is regular, clear communication, and that we conduct ongoing stakeholder analysis is crucial. Working to build buy-in and enabling stakeholders of all types to have a voice will help. But most of all remembering that change can be unsettling—and acting empathetically and ethically—will help us build rapport and collaboratively cultivate a shared solution.

What are your views, do you have anything to add?  I’d love to hear your experiences and tips.   Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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6 thoughts on “Empathy and the Fear of Change”

  1. One of the things it is easy to forget when dealing with change is that not everyone starts from the same place. Information often goes out in waves in large organisations. So while the project team has many months to get used to the idea and key stakeholders a few months the people who are most impacted often don’t find out until it is nearly upon them. By this time the project is trying to shut down and can feel frustrated by what they perceive as reluctance to change. Helping people through change needs to continue well after any technical implementation is completed.

    1. Hi Liz, thanks for the comment. I agree entirely. I have also found that sometimes the ‘waves’ of information are very badly managed; so (for example) a sponsor will be told “All affected staff are now aware”. But what they mean is “We put an article on an intranet, 7 links deep and have e-mailed departmental managers. We hope people will read it (and we’ll blame the managers if they don’t, who will in turn blame their staff)”. Communication is such a tricky issue, isn’t it? In most organisations people are bombarded with communication, and making it stick is so hard. Which is why (where possible) engagement and co-creation is probably more desirable–easy to say, tricky to achieve on any large piece of work, of course!

      Thanks again for your comment Liz, hope you’re well — Adrian.

  2. Interesting article which I’m sure will chime with many.

    In my experience the most contentious changes for many staff are those which affect their physical and/or immediate environment. I think something is going on subconsciously along the lines of “All those big and scary changes are about to happen but at least my little desk/work area is something that I can control.”

    I’ve been part of change projects where radical proposals which we were expecting staff to struggle with have gone through without a murmur, but asking people to move to different desks/spaces has caused absolute uproar.

    I’ve grown to expect it now, which helps a bit ?

    1. Thanks Julia, thanks so much for the comment, that’s a really interesting point. I remember once speaking with someone who described how they had introduced a requirement into a specification that would let users re-arrange the layout a little, and also set a photo as a backdrop (this was in the midst of changes to desks/physical space etc). They found that one thing important to many people was the ability to have a photo of their family/spouse/friends/etc on their desk–but if it couldn’t *physically* be there then providing the ability for an electronic version was appreciated.

      I was reminded of this when reading your comment, as it is almost like providing the ability to control their ‘digital space’… which could easily seem like a ‘nice to have’ requirement but might actually be a ‘must’ for driving adoption.

      I wish I could remember who told me the story about the photo frame (I think I may have met them at a conference…).

      Thanks so much for the comment! I’m glad you found the article interesting. — Adrian

      1. The Lean tool “5S” is a great tool for making physical changes to the workplace, putting power in the hands of the affected staff but with very clear parameters. We’ve used it at my company in 70 offices large and small with great success – although you always get individuals who find it difficult and need extra support. In your digital photo frame example, the team would have begun by deciding as part of 5S whether photos on desks were a requirement and something they wanted to standardise.

        Coincidentally I’ve just received this 5S example in my inbox from the consultants we used to teach us 5S

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