Dealing with Change: Individual Differences (part one)

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Introduction: Doesn’t it seem to you that the pace of change is becoming more rapid? I have found it useful to consider change not as a unitary event, but as two separate processes that happen more or less in tandem. When I am asked to change, I have to take on something new, but I also have to let go of something. I have found it useful to consider those two things separately. I also have found that those people who are pushing the change often want to focus on the new and ignore or downplay the old. This imbalance is often a source of resistance. This resistance cannot be overcome by pushing harder for the new. In fact pushing harder often strengthens the resistance.

There is also the issue of difference in how people react to change in general. Some people welcome change and adapt quickly, others move more slowly and some will fight to the bitter end. Recognizing the difference and dealing with each group individually is critical to success in implementing change. This is particularly true for change that is not your idea, you are just asked to “make it happen”. I would like to take some time to deal with each of these three issues over the next few days.

PART ONE: Individual Differences

Let’s begin with individual difference. Research by the USDA identified five groups of people who react differently to any change. The first group is the mavericks. These are the folks who love change. They will rush to try anything new, follow fads and are about 10% of the population. (The estimates of the size of each group will vary somewhat depending on other factors). Getting these people to try something new usually means just getting out of the way. The second group is the early adopters. These are the social leaders, the ones that others look to for what to do next. They also represent about 10% of any group. They are distinguished from the mavericks in their social impact. Many people view mavericks as somehow suspect, while early adopters are seen as role models. The third group is the early majority. This is a larger group, roughly 30% of the population. They are not really adverse to change, but they just don’t want to be first. The ones they look to for cues about what to do are often the early adopters (we will have more on that relationship later). The fourth group is the late majority. These people are not very eager to change. They want to see multiple people try it first and are more comfortable if some time passes before they have to actually join in the change. The last group is the traditionalists. These people really dislike change and will resist to the end. It will often take some form of coercion to get them to change. They are also often the most vocal about how bad the new thing is. Their slogan is often: “we’ve always done it this way”.

It is important as an agent of change to begin to recognize which group each of your direct reports belongs to and what part each group can play in your effort to effect change. Mavericks are the ones who actively seek out something new. They enjoy the novelty and move rapidly from one new thing to another. They will try something new simply because it is new. The challenge with these people is to keep them focused on regular use. Moving from one thing to another without reason is not usually very productive. Early adopters are similar in that they like change but are different in that they will change when it seems to benefit them. It is this difference that makes the mavericks seem flighty and the early adopters appear as social leaders. While some of the things we will discuss later may seem like too much work, be reassured that not all members of a group require the same amount of attention. Early adopters are the ones who should get most of your attention. Please remember that this is a difference of degree. To ignore anyone in a change effort is dangerous. The early adopters deserve some extra attention because they are the ones that the early (and late) majority are watching to help them decide whether or not to cooperate with this change. If the early majority see that whatever is new is useful and safe for the early adopters they are likely to follow along. As the late majority see the early majority making the change they will follow in time. This leaves only the traditionalists. These are the ones who dislike change and have likely been very vocal about all the pitfalls inherent in the change. It is important for you as a manager to listen to these people. Why? First, because they only get louder if they are ignored. Second, and perhaps more important, they are the group who is usually the most aware of history and so can be a useful source of information about similar efforts in the past.

Each group plays a role in a change effort. Mavericks are useful to pilot new ideas since they will try just about anything just because it is new. Early adopters need extra attention to insure that they adopt new ideas and succeed with them because they are being watched  by the majority (early and late) who will be even more difficult to motivate if they see the early adopters having any problems. The majority will follow along given training and time. The traditionalists will be  the last to change if at all and it may need to be dealt with as a performance problem. Please recognize that this is an oversimplification, but it is never the less useful.

Part two: The Role of Loss will post tomorrow at 10 a.m.

Dr. Stephen Earnest is a partner at Earnest and Treff Consulting and associate faculty in IUPUI’s Master of Science in Adult Education program.  His professional commitments center around ways to increase understanding of how work groups work by teaching Participation Training. If you are interested in having him come to your business, please contact him by email at