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a photo of Robben island
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six books lined up on a beach towel on the beach
Summer Reading
January 15, 2024
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What’s changed for ‘Leading Change’? How to deal with apathy.

three monkeys sitting on a wall in the forest

Continuous Improvement and Lean practictioners are in the business of introducing or facilitating change. We have all heard the many reasons why change is not desired: from various types and levels of disagreement to apathy. I always prefer robust disagreement to apathy. With the former you can actively listen for concerns; with the latter the other party is unlikely to want to have an authentic discussion. You can deal with disagreement, but it is much harder to deal with apathy.

Harvard Business School social psychology professor and best-selling author Amy Cuddy told the World Business Forum in Sydney recently that the pandemic has impacted people’s ability to deal with change. The up-down cycle of stressors of lockdowns and mandates have led to adrenaline highs and ever-lower regression, meaning exhaustion, withdrawal and irritation are now more at the surface. This leaves people disempowered and without agency. On top of that the 2023 Edelman trust barometer indicates that the default emotion is now ‘distrust’.

Post-pandemic it is a lot harder to introduce change – even seemingly positive change: people not necessarily trust the message and feel generally disempowered to influence the course of the change. The effect: apathy is on the rise.

How do leaders deal with those who “can’t be bothered”?

Well, first up, leaders do not have the luxury to say “I can’t be bothered”, as leaders always own the whole: the entirity of the team, the processes, the customers. Leaders can’t sign off or tap out. Secondly, the good news is that the way to deal with apathy has not changed (that much). The response was and remains an understanding of the intrinsic motivation and benefits for the people due to the change, also called the WIIFM – What’s In It For Me. So here are some tips for effectively leading change in apathetic environments:

  • Understand the WIIFM for your people – the benefits that the future will bring, or the future risks that will be avoided.
  • Give people a voice and choice: ask them for input and allow them to ‘opt in’ – maybe not always WHAT is going to change, but definitely HOW the change is going to proceed.
  • Ownership comes from authorship – get people involved and let them develop their ‘own’ plans for their departments and themselves.

And, additionally, in our post-pandemic disempowered environment, ensure you as the leader empower yourself to rebuild your team and your business through times of change. You cannot empower your people if you have not re-empowered yourself. How do you do this?:

  • Being present and connecting with people
  • Give yourself agency – be in control of the things you can control
  • Practice body-mind feedback

About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People