June 1

How to Read Attitudes Towards Change in Non-Verbal Cues

Influence Peers


Assess the Team

Any group involved in decision-making is bound to hold people with different attitudes. That's a good thing because ideas need to be balanced and challenged by skeptics and guards. But the people on the brakes should openly discuss their doubts and remain open to reasoning. And the people with their foot on the gas should pause and listen. Knowing who's who will allow progress to move on in a steady, thorough pace.

Baseline Response

Although most of my work is done online, I regularly lecture and moderate meetings. Recently, I was invited to attend the senior management meeting of a construction company. Eleven people around the table, wanting to hear what their business future may hold. My exposé on the future got the usual responses... 

To observe how a team reacts to a future presentation is extremely illuminating. It shows their baseline attitude towards change. That’s priceless information for change managers and entrepreneurs who want to ready their business for the future.

Relevance - Threat - Opportunity

When a team considers the relevance of developments for the future of their business, they usually sort them in three piles:

  1. Not relevant (discarded)
  2. Threats
  3. Opportunities

The sorting itself isn’t very telling. The characteristics that separate threats from opportunities differ per company. Each company has a distinct, unique fit between their offering and target customer groups. In other words: the sorting is situation driven.

However, the way people tend to address a threat or an opportunity is significant. It conveys how they see the future and whether they want to change their approach at all. This is personality driven.

The ambivalence, the tug of war between personal and situational drivers, makes a change process hard to manage. For executives, insight in baseline attitudes is extremely informative and crucial to momentum and results. Knowing where ambivalence comes from reduces the noise in the change process: it makes ambivalence more transparent.

The way people respond to emerging developments says a lot about their attitude towards change

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Baseline Attitudes Towards Change

I’ve been a practicing futurist for over 15 years now, and I've seen people labeling themselves time and again.

Baseline behaviors

Horizontally, we have threats and opportunities, and vertically the opposite attitudes towards change. Baseline responses are noted in the matrix cells.

When you observe a person and you find that he responds consistently for one cell, without bringing evidence or debatable considerations to the table, then you’ve got your finger on their baseline attitude.

  • Protect. Typical response behavior is: not wanting to listen, fidgeting, leg swinging, foot tapping, sitting with arms locked. Often, people deflect (by that time I'm retired anyway), fight (sticking to contrasting examples), or deny (not relevant for us)
  • Pass. Typical behavior is: not wanting to debate the relevancy and/or urgency of acting on this development. Common objections are of a technical nature (too difficult, expensive, risky) and more probing of possibilities rather than limitations leads to withdrawal from the discussion: turning away, leaning back, downcast eyes
  • Absorb. Typical is: wanting to defend the company (develop boundaries and restriction to curb impact). Only small nudges are required to enable them to transform threats into opportunities. Non verbal cues are very different in comparison, and representative for heavy thinking and evaluation: tilted heads, sitting on the edge of chairs, squinting eyes, chin stroking, extended eye contact
  • Profit. Typical is: taking the opportunity and run with it. People are open and relaxed: unbuttoned coats, uncrossed arms and legs, closer to or leaning towards the speaker

Practise round: Examples of telling non-verbal cues in the presidential debate, 2012, by Janine Driver. 

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