HR Newswire sign up
Follow us on twitter

Jan 7, 2014

Is ‘change management’ patronizing to employees?

Stakeholder analysis, transparency are critical

By Brian Kreissl

I recently completed a change management course at a local university as part of a certificate I’m working on in organizational leadership. Obviously, change management is top of mind for me given my new role here at Carswell.

One of the questions I had before starting the course related to the whole notion of resistance to change. It always felt to me like attitudes towards resistance to change frequently follow the “black and white” dichotomy of, “You’re either with us or against us.”

It seems a little offensive to me when someone has concerns about an organizational change and they are automatically written off or patronizingly given a pat on the head and told something like, “Remember, the only constant in life is change itself.”

There is absolutely no question that cliché is truer now than ever before, but what annoys me is when organizations try to spin a negative change as something that will be positive for employees. I’ve even seen situations where line managers and HR haven’t thought through the likely impact on employees or completed any kind of stakeholder analysis, which would have told them who would be likely to resist change and why.

In such cases, it sometimes seems like senior management can be surprised and even a little annoyed when employees bring up unforeseen but valid concerns about the proposed change. Yet I’m not sure if that anger is directed at themselves for not anticipating such a reaction or towards the employee for daring to throw a wrench into the works with respect to plans for implementing the change. I suspect it’s often a bit of both.

I believe where it is impossible — or next to impossible — to spin a change as something that’s legitimately positive, it is very important to try to involve employees in creating a solution. And communications need to be real and transparent by acknowledging employees’ legitimate concerns and the fact things are going to change for the worse — at least in the short-term.

That’s not to say the message should simply be, “Here’s the change, now suck it up.” Communicating the rationale for the change and attempting to gain buy-in from employees is absolutely critical.

But don’t insult employees’ intelligence. Otherwise, it’s like firing someone and trying to tell them what a wonderful opportunity they’ve been given to explore other career options.

Concerns about ‘patronizing parables’

One thing some people find patronizing is being given a book to read like Who Moved My Cheese?, often with little or no context to accompany it. According to Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, this becomes a “patronizing message for the proletariat to acquiesce.” In fact, Adams cites “patronizing parables” as a top concern expressed to him by readers via e-mail.

For those who haven’t read the book, Who Moved My Cheese? is a parable by Spencer Johnson that follows two mice and two “littlepeople” through a maze in their quest for cheese. “Cheese,” in this case, is a metaphor for anything from which people derive satisfaction in organizations or in life.

After finding a seemingly endless supply of cheese in “Cheese Station C,” the littlepeople in the story, Hem and Haw, become complacent and set in their ways, while the two mice, Sniff and Scurry, remain prepared to continue in their quest searching for new cheese. When the supply of cheese invariably runs out, Sniff and Scurry run off in search of more cheese, while Hem and Haw remain in Cheese Station C, expecting the cheese to return.

While Haw eventually does see the light and leaves in search of new cheese, readers are left pondering the question of whether Hem ever decides to join him. Nevertheless, Haw writes many of his observations about change on the walls of the maze for Hem to consider.

While I understand the criticisms of the book, I was nevertheless able to take something positive from it. My favourite line in the book is when Haw writes on the wall: “The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you find new cheese.”

This rather profoundly illustrates the importance of letting go of the past. It also explains that new opportunities come to those who are willing to change and adapt to new organizational realities.

But the value of a book like Who Moved My Cheese? depends on how it is introduced and distributed to employees. Providing organizational context is vital.  

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Carswell's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions. He can be reached at For more information on Carswell's HR products visit  

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.
Headline for your comment (Optional)
Name (Required)    
Email Address (Required, will not be published)
Comment (Required)
All comments are moderated and usually appear within 24 hours of posting. Email address will not be published.
Is ‘change management’ patronizing to employees?
Monday, July 07, 2014 1:34:00 PM
Using a book is not the problem. It is not sharing clear intent and vision, meeting people where they are in the organization, and encouraging solutions.
Finding who and what prevents this is key. Knowing why, is imperative.
Change Management
Monday, January 20, 2014 7:37:00 PM by Anthony Alfidi
Change management is not patronizing. It's a requirement in a complex environment. Managing VUCA risk involves archived options, knowledge management, decision management, business continuity from SWOT, and of course . . . an ethical culture.
Wednesday, January 08, 2014 8:38:00 AM by Rick Maurer
Brian - Thoughts like yours are what led me to begin searching for better ways to approach organizational change. That curiosity led me to write a book about my thinking on the human part of change. I suggested that the us versus them approach just created problems, and offered an approach to working with resistance that respected those people who held different views.

Here's the sad thing though. Although my book Beyond the Wall of Resistance was pretty successful, and leaders tell me that it has influenced them, the first version of that book came out in 1996. And here we are today talking about the same stuff.

BTW, I was at a reception that night before a presentation and was asked if my approach was similar to Who Moved My Cheese? I said, "No, I am more interested in those people who are out there moving cheese without telling anyone."

I wish you well. And feel free to drop me a line.

Constant change = constant planning
Tuesday, January 07, 2014 3:26:00 PM by Rob Crooks
Brian - thank you for your article. I like your suggestion that where change is likely not to be positive for employees, to be transparent about this. I believe one of the reasons trust is so low in some organizations is the lack of courage in acknowledging this and the tendency to 'spin'. Yes, change is constant, but we must encourage senior leadership to continually plan, evaluate and course correct based on effective stakeholder consultation. And yes, provide meaningful resources to employees rather than tossing a book over the fence!