Changing Where People Sit Accelerates Change

Several months ago, we took a taxi from our hotel to our client to teach a class about change. After a longer than normal ride, we realized the driver didn’t know where to go. Because we didn’t speak the same language as the driver, we found it hard to communicate that we were going in the wrong direction. After several failed attempts to find out where we were (including changing taxis), we eventually arrived in time to teach the workshop. But not until we were anxious, upset, and worried that we might not make it in time. Just before arriving, we realized that our little taxi adventure was similar to how people experience change.

With the accelerated pace of change today, we can all feel a little out of control, frustrated, and anxious about what is happening in our world—just like riding in the back seat of a taxi in a foreign city. Why? Several reasons. First, it feels different when we are receiving versus leading change. When we are the recipient of change, we don’t always get to lead. Consequently, are we confident in the “driver” of the change? Do we feel like we’ll reach our destination using the most direct route? Or is it more like our taxi experience—do we feel lost and unsure about where to go? To some, it feels like they’re being taken for a ride, while others wonder “Are the only options to suffer or sever?”

Second, do leaders of change share ownership and accountability? Do they allow employees out of the back seat and into the front seat? Do they engage all of those affected by the change in planning an effective route to get everyone to the correct destination? Are employees allowed to influence the speed of the journey? And are all passengers confident in the leaders’ ability to get them where they are going? In some of the change initiatives we have seen, people have told us that riding in the back seat of the change would be an improvement. Their reality is that they feel like they’re locked in the trunk getting banged up, flailing around, and getting car sick from smelling the fumes.

And third (just to take the metaphor a little further), who gets access to the keys of the change vehicle? Are employees expected to just receive the change from those above, or do they get to take ownership? Do leaders give responsibility but then micromanage every move by taking the wheel out of employees’ hands if they aren’t driving quite right?

Buy-in, commitment, and accountability for change are dramatically different depending on where people sit in the car and if employees think they have some control over the outcomes. Announcing the change and hoping that people will voluntarily change behavior (a typical approach we see a lot), or mandating the change and expecting people to comply (an approach we see even more) never works. Why?

Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian historian, philosopher, and writer said: “There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders by all those who could profit by the new order. This lukewarmness arises from the incredulity of mankind who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experiences with it.”

If we are not careful, it would be easy to label Machiavelli as a change pessimist. Phrases like “nothing more difficult,” “nothing more doubtful of success,” and “nothing more dangerous” could easily discourage the most courageous of heart. Why would anybody embark on such an adventure—no matter how bright the change vision may be? Yet careful analysis of the Italian politician’s insights could also yield a less pessimistic and a more realistic view of change. Yes, it’s hard; there are enemies to change, and it’s going to take the effort to overcome the “lukewarmness” of the status quo. But the real secret to change is getting people out of the back seat (so to speak) and engaged in the process. Changing seats changes employee’s view. And when they can see and influence the direction, speed, and process, most employees will want to be part of the new order of things.

R. Kendall Lyman and Tony C. Daloisio are authors of Change The Way You Change: 5 Roles Of Leaders Who Accelerate Business Performance. Lyman is a founding principal of The Highlands Group. Daloisio is founder and CEO of Charter Oak Consulting and a principal of The Highlands Group. Please visit for more information.