I hear people talk about change in organizations as if it’s something new. That’s total crap. Change has been around for as long as business has. But I do think it’s fair to say that something’s different now. Change has changed. It’s more frequent, more complex, and more iterative. There are multiple changes going on at the same time. One change isn’t fully implemented before the next has started. This perpetual change is rendering our old 7-step change management models useless—what are you supposed to do when you’re on steps 1, 4, and 7 all at the same time. You need a new way of thinking about and managing change.

What Hasn’t Changed

Ok, let’s start with what hasn’t changed. Our brains haven’t evolved in the 10 years since things started getting kooky on the organizational change front. We’re still wired to notice anything that’s novel in our environment. Finding something unexpected still kicks our brains into overdrive. Adapting to change still requires that we abandon our habits—the standard operating procedures that make our lives more manageable—and replace them with deliberate actions. Switching from habit to deliberateness is exhausting. Change is costly for our brains. But none of that’s new.

What Has Changed

The difference now is that we have so few opportunities to rest and recover from change. There are so few calm moments when our arousal and anxiety levels can go back to normal. We seldom get to the point of routine, automatic habit—we’re always on a learning curve.

Different people respond to this prolonged arousal in different ways. Some are just too complacent and choose the risk of sticking with the status quo over the effort of trying to change. Others get so overwhelmed by pace and magnitude of change that they become immobilized. Either way, the result is that you’re not getting the change you’re looking for as a leader.

The Optimum Mindset

Psychologists have known for decades that there’s an optimum level of anxiety if you want to support performance. You don’t want too little anxiety because that leads to complacency. Nor do you want too much anxiety because that leaves people overwhelmed. There’s a sweet spot in the middle where people can really kick it into gear. John Kotter gave this a catchy name—the “Productive Range of Distress.”

Ask yourself, where are the people on your team:

  1. a) sitting in the sweet spot,
  2. b) too comfy to care, or
  3. c) too anxious to act?

Most audiences I speak to tell me that their team contains some of each. What to do then? The answer is that you have to stop managing by meeting. You can’t simultaneously turn up and turn down the heat in one meeting. Instead, you need to manage each person separately, finding time to listen to them and to diagnose where their anxiety levels are at. Once you have a sense, use the following techniques to turn up or turn down the heat, accordingly.


When you talk about what’s at stake in the change you’re trying to create, be aware of how your appeals affect the person’s anxiety levels. To turn up the heat, raise the stakes. Talk about the opportunities associated with the change in more compelling terms. Similarly, talk about the severity of the consequences of failing to change with more drama. Make it sound a bit like the movie trailer for the latest summer blockbuster. Say “doomed” a few times.

In contrast, if your employee is overwhelmed, make the stakes smaller. Don’t talk about the change as, “The single most important crisis our firm has ever faced!” Yikes, that’s definitely going to scare the person off. Talk more about small opportunities and how capitalizing on them would make things meaningfully better.


The standard rules for good communication require that you provide context for changes. That’s all well and good for the average person, but for someone who’s overwhelmed, providing a lot of context can just confuse the issue. Pair down your message to only the most salient background if you’re trying to turn down the heat. Don’t make the person feel like you’re counting on them to understand all the interconnected pieces.

Conversely, turn up the heat on someone who’s too comfy by showing how important the person’s role is in the success of the broader plan.


Having recently found a study that shows how much more effective data and visuals are in changing someone’s opinion, I highly recommend that when an employee is not changing their behavior, you present them with some compelling data to make your case. If you’re trying to turn up the heat, you want to show data that trends downward. Show the picture and ask, “Where do we end up if this trend continues?”

To turn down the heat, provide data to show that things are better than they seem. Show a positive trend or early wins and ask, “We’re already seeing progress, what do you think is working?”

Rewards & Recognition

Use rewards and recognition as another lever to turn up or turn down the heat. When you’re trying to turn up the heat, remove any positive reinforcement the person might be getting just for showing up. Instead, only reward results. If you are shifting focus, only reward the new behaviors and stop recognizing behaviors that might have been rewarded in past.

If, on the other hand, you’re trying to turn down the heat, pay attention to the small steps that suggest the person is making an honest attempt at change.

Those are just a few of the dimensions you should be thinking about when you coach an employee during times of change. You can also modify your tone to be more urgent or more relaxed. Use adjectives that make things seem either more grim or more grounded. Lengthen your time horizon to increase the heat and focus on the here and now to turn it down. I’m sure you can think of others and I’d love to hear them in the comments.

There are universal truths about change–as humans, we are thrown off our game by things that are new or novel or unexpected. What’s tricky is that the pace of change today is leaving us in that sub-optimal state much of the time. As a manager, you need to understand how change is affecting each individual on your team and apply different strategies to ensure they aren’t too comfy to care or too anxious to act.

Further Reading

Exercise: Exposing Reactions to Change

Culture is the Cheapest Thing to Change

What to Say to Someone Resisting Change