Overwhelm’er, Gantry!

It’s been 15 years since Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert was sent to a week-long ‘change facilitation’ course. Looking back on the experience, he has a warning for companies considering hiring outside vendors to motivate their workers.

Picture this: you’re sitting quietly in a conference room, browsing this column on your smartphone, when a shout interrupts your train of thought. A young stranger sporting wide eyes and wild gestures loudly exhorts you to ‘Head for the exits! The building is on fire!’

What happens next? For most people, the natural response is to become both cognitively and physiologically aroused (think agitated, not amorous). The observer’s mind understands the warning ‘fire’ and the mortal danger that it represents. The observer’s body, meanwhile, responds sympathetically to the speaker’s high-energy display. Even when there’s no language shared between them, an observer can experience an unconscious physiological reaction to an excited speaker. The introduction of an urgent warning motivates the observer to react: the observer’s ‘fight or flight’ reaction cuts in. The observer’s heart rate and blood pressure increase. Their muscles tense and their senses come alive. The observer is primed to act, suffused with sudden energy. Whether that means rushing off to fight the fire or else to bolt for the exists is, by and large, irrelevant. The stranger initiating the new sensation triggered a powerful cascade of mental, emotional, and physiological changes in the observer just by displaying unexpected signs of agitation.

This is normal. Natural, even. It’s a primal reaction that keeps people alive when everyday situations unexpectedly turn dangerous. A sudden spike in excitement stimulates people to overcome their natural anxieties and take immediate action. The initiator serves as both a stimulant and a catalyst for what happens next. The thing is, if nothing else happens to sustain the alarm, the spike in arousal generally only lasts for about twenty or so minutes before it naturally burns itself out. Humans are wired to revert back to a more relaxed ‘steady state.’ Once the excitement passes, thinking resumes.

Upon closer study, this statement appears to be predominantly buzzwords and bovine faeces

That’s why this sort of sudden, loud, and aggressive interjection works very well for spurring an immediate reaction: bosses shout orders, workers surge to obey. When seconds count, this tactic works very well for compelling immediate compliance. Picture the ‘bellowing drill-sergeant’ or ‘ship captain in crisis’ movie character tropes. It’s an excellent way to spur people into action … for a short period. A leader can use it multiple times, but it’s effectiveness tends to decline with repeated use; people become accustomed to the sound and fury until it finally loses its power to motivate.

There are longer-term ways to use the emotional reactivity technique. If you’ve ever been to an American ‘tent revival’ (or have seen one on television on in movies), then you’ve seen examples of this. A charismatic, energetic, and enthusiastic speaker gets a crowd excited, engaged, and enthralled through a combination of physical movement, fiery rhetoric, and emotional resonance. It’s recognizable because it works. Have you ever been in a meeting where the speaker was so passionate that the audience leapt to its feet with uncontainable excitement? It can be an amazing experience, even when you don’t actually agree with the presenter. Your body’s natural tendency to respond to others’ highly-charged emotional conduct is nothing short of astounding. It can be exhilarating, too.

So, then, picture this: you’re sitting quietly in a conference room, browsing this column on your smartphone, when a shout interrupts your train of thought. A young stranger sporting wide eyes and wild gestures loudly exhorts you to ‘Embrace the change! The company is re-organising!’

What happens next? For most people, the natural physical response is to become aroused, just as if the stranger had yelled ‘Fire!’  People react to others’ emotional states automatically. As for mental arousal … it depends. If the observer is mentally and emotionally disposed favourably towards the referenced social changes, then he or she may get swept up in the excitement, both physiologically and cognitively aroused. You’ve probably seen this happen: picture the attendees at a major tech company keynote speech lose their bloody minds. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is the release of a new iPhone, the financials reporting for an MLM business, or a new superhero movie trailer reveal at Comic-Con. The true believers in the audience feed off of the initiator’s fervour and reflect back their own in a sort of breeder reaction. They’re all in, and it shows.

WOO-HOO! Revised sales targets for the third fiscal quarter! Everybody hurl some glitter!

But … ah … what happens when the observer isn’t mentally and emotionally favourably disposed towards the presenter’s stated change(s)? What happens when the observer is caught completely off-guard by the announcement? Or when the observer has already formed a negative opinion about it? Realistically, the observer experiences two different reactions simultaneously:

  • The observer experiences a natural sympathetic physiological response to the speaker’s elevated enthusiasm. The observer will often appear to be excited because they actually are; they’re in a state of heightened arousal, as if they were responding to a warning.
  • Meanwhile, the observer experiences a completely unrelated mental reaction: because they’re opposed to the content itself (regardless of the delivery technique), they grow defensive anxious, and/or angry. They may even get furious at the initiator.

To an outside party, the first reaction – the physical reaction – is easy to spot. Observers perk up. Their eyes snap to the speaker and track. Their breathing rate increases. They might flush as their heartrate increases. If the person watching expects the audience to be excited by the presentation, they the logical conclusion to draw is that the observer is excited. Technically, the audience is excited. Excited, however, is not the same as being favourably disposed towards the message.

Complicating things, it takes a great deal of experience to catch the subtle, guarded signs of suppressed hostility in the audience: clenched jaws, narrowed eyes, soured expressions, hands shoved into pockets … there are dozens of ‘tells’ that communicate a negative reaction. Those signs are often list when the evaluator doesn’t understand the significance of what they’re seeing. Very often, the audience’s physical reaction to the high-energy input seems to corroborate the watcher’s expectations (‘The audience is excited and happy about our message!’) while the subtle negative indicators that challenge the watcher’s expectations get ignored. Again, this is human nature. [1] So, why does this matter in a business-focused column? Because this inability to recognize the disconnect between overt signalling (an involuntary physical response) and covert signalling (a suppressed mental and emotional response) is what often undermines well-intentioned change management efforts.

The next-most-common cause of failed change efforts is abysmal planning. Humans tend to be awful at predicting problems and assessing risk. 

Here’s the thing: it’s normal for companies to change strategic direction as their operating context evolves. Major projects and tools get redirected or dropped. Offices get closed or relocated. Workgroups dramatically change focus. As circumstances change, the business has to react.  Unfortunately, workers’ and workgroup cultures tend to have a momentum all their own; getting people to drastically change how they work requires significant effort. Old habits are hard to break.

That’s why many businesses turn to mercenary ‘change management experts’ to help motivate their critical internal stakeholders to accept the required changes. If the company can convince the key workers to embrace the new direction, their peers and subordinates will quickly fall into line. That’s why large companies tend to ‘dress up’ major internal changes with catchy slogans, logos, preparatory meetings, and even parties to celebrate the changes – hoping to win over the workers’ acceptance and support.

A professional services company can make a living doing nothing but ‘facilitating change’ for other (paying) customers. The best examples of these consultants have extensive training in human behaviour and organisational dynamics; they know how to ‘sell’ new ideas to a sceptical mass, and use their expertise to convince key influencers to lead the transition effort from the inside.

The worst examples of these consultants – and there are lots of bad examples in this industry niche – don’t have the shrewd social psychology expertise of the top firms … so they make up for their lack of skill with raw enthusiasm. They use the same basic interpersonal tactics that con artists use at tent revivals: they get their audiences riled up (triggering involuntary physical responses) to give the appearance of change, and then leave with a fistful of dosh before the client realizes that the ‘change management’ effort didn’t actually ‘take.’ All the whooping, cheering, and liveliness was a short-term effect of manipulative stimulation, not an actual impetus to embrace change.

Why, you’d almost think that people only pretend to care about the boss’s interests in order to avoid getting fired …

I’ve experienced a lot of ‘change management experiences,’ and the crap ones have all followed the same general attack plan that the evangelical preachers in my neighbourhood where I grew up used to follow at the pulpit: start off loud and enthusiastic. Get people up on their feet and make them move. Exhort the audience clap, shout, speak, and smile. Play some upbeat music. Issue a dire warning and then offer a warming compliment. By the end of the sessions – no matter what the subject under discussion was – the audience’s involuntary physical reaction to stimulation fed on itself like a breeder reaction. Everyone in the room saw everyone else reacting to the presenter’s message and each logically assumed that he or she was the only person who wasn’t ‘getting it.’ Since everyone else seemed to be totally enraptured by the message, it must mean that the individual should shut up and go along with the program. Most people don’t want to stand out as ‘different.’

If you want to see great examples of this sort of crowd manipulation, watch the classic tent revival drama Elmer Gantry. [2] The one-two punch of a fire-and-brimstone ‘bad cop’ opener and the inspiring ‘good cop’ closer is a darned good training manual for how to manipulate a crowd. It’s also a darned good study in how people who don’t believe a word of what they’re preaching can still ‘sell’ a message. Or, at the very least, appear to sell their message long enough to get paid and vamoose.

That’s the thing: real change management experts appreciate the inspirational value of high-energy motivational encounter. They also understand that short-term effects are not long-term solutions. A professional change management consultant uses an array of tactics, techniques, and procedures to achieve their specific operational objectives. A reputable agency has the courage to engage critics with candid dialogue and facts. They’ll also acknowledge where their efforts may fail. A trustworthy partner is just that: a partner. They’ll do everything that they can to influence the client organisation through its key stakeholders in order to secure the desired outcome. They won’t, however, lie.

A crap change management company, on the other hand, will. They may have colourful props, dazzling light shows, and catchy music, but they don’t have any substance. Frauds – like the roving scammers who take advantage of decent folks’ hunger for righteousness – are usually all flash, no bang. That is, they don’t engage their audience in meaningful dialogue. They don’t tackle the difficult problems standing in the way of achieving change. Instead, they play on human biology and psychology to secure a very intense, very memorable, short-term response. They claim that the appearance of change during the session constitutes a success, and then they disappear. The client is left with a post-revival hangover. Many times, this includes a grim cadre of malcontents who recognized the consultants’ balderdash for what it was … and afterwards deeply resent management’s bungled attempt to manipulate them. Resistance to the desired change is actually strengthened.

Ironically, you can significantly improve teamwork by motivating your more cynical subordinates to begin actively plotting your professional demise. 

The takeaway for senior leaders is: 1. Change management is a difficult, long-term effort and 2. Anyone who says otherwise is probably unfit to perform change management services. Beware any vendor who tries to sell you a short-duration, high-intensity ‘experience’ as an entire change management solution. There’s nothing wrong with employing a rah-rah session to get people pumped up, so long as that’s only one component of a much larger, and more comprehensive attack plan. A vendor who swoops in, makes a bunch of noise, and then disappears isn’t helping. They’re actually harming the initiative.

I’ve talked about this subject with my preacher friends. The clergymen [3] all agree that rousing, high-energy sermons can be a lot of fun, but they don’t bring about real long-term change. Getting a parishioner through a crisis of faith – and that’s what a major change management effort really is – requires many hours of patient discussion and candour. An educated sceptic has to come around on his or her own, through reason, logic, and faith. The same thing goes for a key stakeholder who perceives a proposed company changes as a threat to his or her beliefs and way of life. To effectively ‘convert’ one’s critics into becoming advocates, your change management efforts have to address their fundamental, well-reasoned, and pragmatic concerns … slowly, patiently, and rationally.

Of course, if you think you can overwhelm your sceptics with a high-energy floor show and some goofy teamwork games, be my guest. Truth be told, you can. That’s why so many companies do it. The ‘tent revival’ approach works … at least, it works in the very short term. It’s extremely difficult for people who haven’t been trained to recognize and resist such tactics. That is, to overcome their basic biological programming. If you enter a stadium, gymnasium, or boardroom with enough fiery enthusiasm, your audience can’t help but respond to your fervour. Just don’t mistake that initial response for true conversion because that’s now how we’re wired. People respond to crisis triggers just long enough to escape the immediate crisis … and then return to a rational, low-energy state where one’s analysis and beliefs overrule one’s gut reactions. If your proposed changes are bad for your workers, they’ll recognize that and resist … no matter how much they danced at the party.


[1] It’s called ‘confirmation bias.’  By the definition, it’s the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.

[2] Or, better yet, read Sinclair Lewis’s 1926 novel that the film was based on.

[3] And clergywomen!

Title Allusion: Sinclair Lewis, Emler Gantry (1926 book); Sinclair Lewis and Richard Brooks, (1960 film)

Photographs under licence from Thinkstockphotos.co.uk: crowd at concert, Gabiixs; puzzled scientist, nan_bkk; disco clubbing, shironosov; unfinished bridge, siloto; people in a night club, Dragan Radojevic; upset business team, ackF


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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