Recognising and responding to employees’ receptiveness to change

By Elisabeth Goodman, 19th June 2019

Victim, survivor and navigator mindsets in change – based on the work of Richard McKnight.  Illustrations by Nathaniel Spain in my book “The Effective Team’s Change Management Workbook”, RiverRhee Publishing, 2013

providing the conditions for navigators of change

One of the most repeated and, in my view, misleading tropes about change is that “people resist change”.

Certainly if people are not given enough information and involvement or control they are likely to demonstrate resistance characterised by being a ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ of change.

However, if the opposite is true: if people at least understand what the change is about, and what it is for, then they may come to believe in and value it – and demonstrate the characteristics of ‘navigators’ of change.

(You can read more about the concepts of ‘victims, survivors and navigators’ of change in one of my blogs on navigating change.)

employees are more receptive to change than business leaders give them credit for

An article in the May-June issue of Harvard Business Review – “Your workforce is more adaptable than you think” – by Joseph B Fuller et al (pp. 118-126) reveals that employees can be more aware and receptive to change than their business leaders predict.

Joseph B. Fuller et al, Harvard Business Review, May-June 2019 pp. 118-126

In fact, these employees would like to have more support and development opportunities to better equip them to deal with change i.e. they want to be ‘navigators’, but need the tools to help them to be so.

This was a large multi-country study, including the UK, which compared the perceptions and attitudes towards trends or changes (‘forces of disruption’) in the workplace, between low to middle-skill workers and business leaders.

The forces of disruptive change

Joseph B Fuller and his co-authors explored a total of 17 aspects of change, under six broad headings:

  1. Accelerating technological change – resulting in a decrease, increase, or other form of change in the nature of people’s work
  2. Growing demand on skills – an increase in the skills or knowledge expected of people at work; and an increased demand for (new) people with the relevant skills
  3. Changing employee expectations – people wanting to work more flexible hours for a better work/life balance; people more motivated by purpose and autonomy
  4. Shifting demographics – the expectation and necessity of greater diversity in the workforce: age, gender, race etc.
  5. Transitioning work / business models – reflecting some of point 3. but also more complex ecosystems of collaborations and partnerships
  6. Evolving business environment – in terms of regulatory, economic and political changes..

What business leaders can do to nurture employees’ receptiveness to change

Joseph B. Fuller and his co-authors’ recommendations would seem to echo my earlier points about people being more receptive to change if they are given some level of information and control or involvement in change.

Here is what they recommend:

 1.  Instil a continuous learning culture – with resources to support it, on the job, and also by recruiting from within. (This echoes a point in another article in the same issue of HBR about recruitment.)

2.  Involve and engage employees in the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of transition.  In one case study, the authors show how a company asked everyone to reapply for the smaller number of jobs resulting from their transition, and then provided support for those who were not successful to find new jobs.

3. Look to develop talent from within (a similar point to 1. above).  Be ambitious rather than assuming that you need to hire for the new skills.  Plan for what you need, and also for the skills that you will no longer need.

4. Collaborate with competitors and with academia to develop training and resources for new skills – especially in areas that are not currently being supported.  (This is something that companies in Cambridgeshire and in the Life Sciences are quite active in.  See for example this introductory Bioinformatics course from the Wellcome Sanger Institute.)

5. Find ways to manage the uncertainty within your organisation – for example by tracking emerging trends and giving people the opportunity to volunteer to be involved. They could for example work on projects outside their immediate area of work; another way to develop talent and skills.


Although business leaders might be tempted to ‘protect’ their employees from the changes that their organisations are subjected too, doing so can only backfire.

People cope better with change if they are kept informed and involved and, as this HBR article shows, will be better placed to take a proactive role in the associated challenges and opportunities.


RiverRhee’s next course on Managing Change is on the 14th November.  Do get in touch if you would like to learn more about our approach.

RiverRhee delivers training, workshops and one-to-one coaching in range of management and team member skills

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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