Treat People as Humans, not Econs!

How working WITH human nature speeds up change

by Susanne Burgstaller

Delays and blockages in change usually occur when the change process goes against the grain of human nature. This happens when

  • people can´t grasp what all this “palaver” is good for,
  • they have negative emotions, such as feeling overloaded, threatened or pressured
  • the change seems undoable to them.

All errors occur frequently in change processes. Change agents need to ensure that they are treating change players as humans rather than econs.

What are econs?

In the past, economists conceived of humans as fully rational beings – or econs. They were surprised to find that their behaviour did not follow the economic models they designed. Humans are emotional beings who are easily distracted and often make decisions that are not in their self-interest. Also:

Human behaviour does not follow any models about organizational change!

Ignoring that fact results in countless obstacles to fluid and fast change. Let me tell you a real story about how these obstacles can be overcome.

I was called by an executive team who had been working on a change process for six months. Their complaint was: “There is some passive resistance in this organisation.” They described that their people were working on their change topics obediently, but without achieving much. They heard complaints about work overload and that the change strategy was unclear.

The executive team on the other hand felt they had described the strategy endlessly. They had even produced a 30-page document plus many colourful slides with images, slogans and metaphors on the WHY and the WHAT of the change. What was wrong?

After a few conversations with people at different levels I concluded that our change-doers were not resisting, they were simply confused and overloaded. What a familiar story!

What had happened to our busy change-doers in the story above happens to thousands of humans in organisations worldwide.

  • Their minds get overloaded, especially when they are being asked to “do change” on top of their busy operational work.
  • They simply cannot remember all the messages their CEO sends. Humans cannot hold too many things in their minds at the same time.
  • The confusion increases when the actual words used are fuzzy container words that convey little or too many different meanings. The confusion or anguish amplifies exponentially when the way the messages sent are evoking negative emotions!
  • When humans get overloaded, they start to react from the gut and display a “flight-or-fight” response. The overload also activates a number of biases, such as for example:
  • Status quo bias, meaning that humans prize what they have now over what they might have in the future. (Especially if they do not get the time to imagine how the changed future might be good for them. Another very common shortcoming!)
  • Confirmation bias plays another part. This means that humans believe information that confirms their original beliefs more than information that contradicts them. Therefore it becomes hard to introduce new concepts.

In my change case our change-doers were clearly humans, not econs. And what about the executive team who had called me in? Were they faultless? Guess what:

Executives are also humans!

  • In addition to all of the above, they often fall prey to overconfidence bias, believing that they are doing everything right.
  • Equally dangerous for them is negativity bias, meaning that noticing negative developments tops noticing positive ones.

In my case this was a hugely demotivating development for the struggling change teams. However, we managed to turn this around by getting the exec team to notice and comment on every positive development, however small.

What else made things better?

  • We offered a process phase (including a large-group session and multiple conversations) where we invited everyone to draw a detailed image of their preferred future, thus allowing time to absorb new arguments and imagine a different future.
  • We found a group of people who were already showing the behaviours envisaged in the future and invited them to come to the fore, thus showcasing the early customers for change.
  • We positioned change as something everyone is doing (“follow-the-herd” bias) by creating communities and nurturing change teams.
  • We tried to “shrink the change” to avoid overload – by inviting teams to take smaller steps, relieving the most overloaded change players, and noticing and celebrating every sign of progress.
  • We simplified the messages sent by the executive team while at the same time including concrete details that made the desired change tangible.
  • Also, we opened up multiple communication channels to give opportunities for information and dialogue for the different target groups in the organisation.
  • We tried to counter overconfidence bias in the exec team by stimulating critical self-reflection, asking questions and getting them to listen to their people as well as to an outside perspective. (To be honest that was the hardest job of all ;-) !)

So: if you are a change agent, and especially if you are also an executive, your task is to ask yourself continuously:

  • Which biases might I have fallen prey to?
  • How can I empathize better with the humans in our change initiative?
  • What can I do differently to create a better fit with their needs?


Change agents of any school of thought are well served by working with human nature, rather than against it.

Susanne Burgstaller has worked in organisational development and change for nearly 35 years. She writes about Solution-Focus, organisational development, leadership and change, and mentors agile and change coaches.

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