Is ‘change management’ patronizing to employees?

Stakeholder analysis, transparency are critical

Brian Kreissl

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 [email protected]. For more information on Carswell's HR products visit  

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