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Is it painful enough? How to influence executives who aren’t interested in the human factors of change!

Is it painful enough? How to influence executives who aren’t interested in the human factors of change!

5 minutes read.

I am waiting for him in the lobby. He is the head of global HR who personally contacted me to discuss a project for his company. It is not an official interview but a casual talk to get to know each other. He greets me and guides me to a common area to sit and have a coffee. After the usual talk about the weather, I tell him about my background, and he does the same. He then tells me about their new HR strategies and what they must achieve.  

Even though the HR leader talks in general terms, I get the sense of what their problem is, and what they have in mind to address it. I listen very carefully to what he says because words give me data. I decipher they are trying to enhance employee engagement and Emotional Intelligence. They plan to do this by changing how people interact with each other, and how the so called “leaders” lead. Their strategy sounds appealing. I can tell it is crafted by an accredited consulting team. He is looking for someone who will be able to turn this expensive strategic plan into a reality.

After ten years of dealing with the human side of change, this is quite a familiar story. It repeats again and again across organizations and geographies. The name-brand, prestigious outsiders design a shiny strategy for a company’s “change project” – those who read my previous article know how I feel about change as a project – then leaders assign a person or a team to implement it. Usually, this strategy costs a fortune for companies, and the team or person who will be accountable to implement it needs to make it work, no matter what! Even if the strategy considers the human factors, often, leaders or the implementation team is not aligned with the mindset behind the strategy.

… now it is my turn to talk. I begin with a simple question: “From my experience, the most important aspect of Emotional Intelligence is self-awareness. Do you agree?” … He thinks a bit and then approves with a nod … “If I convince you that to achieve your goals of increasing employee engagement and Emotional Intelligence you need to increase people’s self-awareness, would you agree to run training sessions on mindfulness? … He replies, “If I am convinced, why not?” Rays of hope shine in my heart! I continue: “To convince you, I need to gather some real data from employees; I need to empathize with them. He interrupts me, “But the plan is already completed and approved.” “Oh!” I feel puzzled. I continue: “When you created the plan, did you gather real data from your leaders, and did you co-create the roadmap with your employees?”

Before I continue the conversation and my data gathering, he tells me something that breaks my heart: “We don’t have time for human intellectual games; we need to change quickly, and the plan is ready to go. Will you be able to implement the plan, so we see results immediately?” I know I can implement the plan neatly, but to be honest, I also know it will fail since the human factors of change have not been properly addressed.

While driving home, I wondered why this pattern of executives ignoring humans during times of change is so epidemic. These days if you look at your LinkedIn homepage or open any bestselling book on management, or any article on an accredited website, or even posts on websites of management consulting companies, they all talk about how important the human factors are and how these subjective variables can change the game. So, why are decision makers so reluctant to do so? Why do leaders view a human-first approach to change as an “intellectual game” that nobody has time nor money for?

Maybe it is helpful to know more about humans…

Anyone who deals with change and transformation in an organization knows that having the buy-in and engagement from senior management is vital. So, how do you influence Executives who aren’t interested in the human factors of change? The answer lies in the fact that Executives are human, too! Schultz and Nelson-Phelps taught us that human factors (or “Human Capital”) influence how we adapt to change. A collection of traits – knowledge, skills, experience, intelligence, training, etc. – enable us to adopt changes. Our ability to influence these traits within Executives can create acceptance of new ways of thinking, acting and behaving. I like that Elizabeth Lank calls them “invisible assets”.

So, how do we influence them? Jeromy Bentham, a founder of Psychological Egoism Theory, discovered that “human behavior is governed by a need to increase pleasure and decrease pain.” Also, Tversky and Kahneman concluded that “losses and disadvantages have a greater impact on preferences than gain and advantages.” Moreover, sharing pain promotes bonding among people and enhances cooperative behavior. In fact, Bastian and colleagues approved that painful experiences are more significant over other competing demands. Evolution made humans to be more concerned with avoidance of immediate pain or to escape dangerous situations. This is a priority for our survival. These concepts have widely been used in economics and marketing.

… So, how can the concepts help us?

First, the way to influence Executives is to demonstrate how the people side of change can avoid the pain of failed transformations. You can back up your claims with data, charts, reports or any of executives’ favorites. Furthermore, inviting them to recall their past experiences of failed change (and the pain that goes with them) is another way to touch Executives’ pain points and motivate them to invest in the people factors that help employees adopt change.

… I realize now that I should have told the HR leader about what will happen if they don’t consider human factors in their change plan instead of the benefits of employee engagement and Emotional Intelligence – which he already seemed to be aware of. The head of global HR is human, too!

I am looking forward hearing your experience on the subject. Was it painful enough!?

This is post #2 of the “Human Side 4.0™” series. See post #1 here.


  1. Schultz, T. W. Investment in Human Capital. Am. Econ. Rev. 51, 1–17 (1961).
  2. Nelson, R. R. & Phelps, E. S. Investment in Humans, Technological Diffusion, and Economic Growth. Am. Econ. Rev. 56, 69–75 (1966).
  3. Lank, E. Leveraging invisible assets: the human factor. Long Range Plann. 30, 324–412 (1997).
  4. Feinberg, J. Psychological Egoism. in Ethical Theory: An Anthology (ed. Shafer-Landau, R.) (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).
  5. Bowie, N. E. Business Ethics, Philosophy, and the Next 25 Years. Bus. Ethics Q. 10, 7–20 (2000).
  6. Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. Loss Aversion in Riskless Choice: A Reference-Dependent Model. Q. J. Econ. 106, 1039–1061 (1991).
  7. Bastian, B., Jetten, J. & Ferris, L. J. Pain as Social Glue: Shared Pain Increases Cooperation. Psychol. Sci. 25, 2079–2085 (2014).
Dr. BehNaz Gholami

Dr. BehNaz Gholami

Founder of Dizen & Human Side Academy. BehNaz is a Social Scientist, a Senior Change Strategist and Experience Designer.



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