How to champion change in a change-averse culture

by | Jun 26, 2018 | Blog | 2 comments

How do you champion change when you work or live in a change-averse culture?

This is a question I hear frequently. It’s also one that’s top of mind for me personally since February 2014. That’s when my husband and I moved to Charleston, South Carolina from the San Francisco Bay Area to be closer to family.

We traded an environment that responds “Yes and….” to possibilities to a society that treasures the past and often reacts to new ideas with “No, but ….”  Founded in 1670, Charleston often seems to place a higher priority on preserving its past than embracing the future.

If you expect the world to spin forward like I do, it’s easy to experience culture shock.

Yet because of its many advantages – natural beauty, world-class culture, scrumptious food and growing job opportunities in addition to its beautiful historic architecture — Charleston is attracting about 34 new residents each day.  Soon we’ll be at a tipping point when we newcomers will outnumber the natives.

Yet, we can’t expect a seismic shift in the culture overnight, either in the community or the companies based here. Nor should you, wherever you live and work.

That’s because we’re shaped by hundreds of years of history. Furthermore, the past will continue to mold our future, according to the award-winning journalist and historian Colin Woodard. His book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America explains the details.   

So what do you do if you want to make sure you’re looking through the front windshield rather than the rear view mirror and bringing people along with you on the change journey?

Be prepared to have many one-on-one and small group customized conversations to champion change. Even better, try to listen as much or more than you talk.

Yes, this approach is time-consuming, which I acknowledge to my coaching clients around the country (not just in Charleston) who can be just as impatient as I am about the slow pace of transformation in their organizations.

Conversations alone won’t change people. You need to combine meaningful discussions with practical, human-centered actions based on advancements in neuroscience, behavioral design and economics, and psychology. For more about this, check out Why to suck up to college seniors on the subject of change

Meanwhile, here are five tips for strengthening your customized conversations about change:

  1. Channel your inner diplomat to be sensitive, empathetic and compassionate. Also, consider the assumptions you’re operating under, especially if you’re a change junkie who’s scanning the horizon for the next new thing. You don’t want to further frighten individuals who already feel threatened with changes to their status quo. Try to get them to articulate their hopes, dreams and fears, which will help you adjust your messages so they’ll be more accepting. Otherwise, you can find yourself driving the wrong way on a one-way street and experiencing whiplash.  
  1. Ask thoughtful questions. Start by asking permission to ask them questions, which shows respect. And then ask “thinking questions,” which help an individual stop, reflect and focus on the quality of the thinking he or she has devoted to the topic you’re talking about. When individuals take time to think more deeply, they get ah-ha moments, also called “self-generated insights.” These are key to increased understanding, commitment, and behavior change. For more about this, look at Why an ‘a-ha’ helps behavior change.
  1. Use biology as a metaphor for change instead of engineering. In other words, talk about planting seeds for change rather than building a platform for change. Regardless of the conditions, seeds can take root and grow faster than a foundation can transform. Plus it’s hard to argue about the power of nature and its ability to change. After all, nature doesn’t stand still and neither do we humans. We continue to change, generally at the pace that’s in sync with our environment and culture.
  1. “Bring the outside in” to provide different perspectives. Exposing individuals to new ideas and viewpoints can be especially helpful, especially if the topic is new, challenging or controversial. Hearing a compelling story from others can jolt people out of any complacency. For instance, one of my clients once invited the executive director of another licensing board to speak about the rampant cheating scam this board had recently uncovered with their licensing exams. Before the talk, my client was having trouble convincing his state boards to look into potential risks. After the talk, the state boards immediately decided they had to work on protecting licensing exams from cheating and other risks.
  1. Thank people for their time and interest, and if you see them taking actions to support the change, thank them again. Attention is a limited resource. So when people pay attention to you and your messages, your act of thanking them encourages them to continue the practice. And if they do more than make an effort, as in they actually take positive actions based on your messages, your thanks will reinforce their new behavior and encourage them to do more of the same.

Good luck with all of your conversations! Bless your heart and mine…..

Being a champion for change is hard work, especially if you’re also new in your role, but worth it. What do you think?


  1. Greg Robinson

    I really enjoyed this blogpost, Liz. For many of us, our tendency as leaders is to drag (or push) our people through organizational change, which often results in many casualties along the way. Change isn’t easy for anyone but if you are respectful and give your people the opportunity to put their personal stamp on it, you often find that the culture wasn’t so change-averse after all. Thanks for your insights.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Greg. Yes, encouraging people to put their personal stamp on something is powerful. By the way, I was inspired to write this post after listening to a webinar in which a consultant shared too-many-to-count change models, frameworks, and tools for getting people to change. Strong-arming doesn’t work! Plus, who has time to learn complicated stuff when the business situation is so complex? Instead, you need to keep yourself and people focused on the business, and conversations are a great way to do that. I appreciate you taking the time to comment!

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