Be the change: rejection & the FBI Stairway to Behavioural Change

Updated: Apr 17

Be the change: rejection & the FBI Stairway to Behavioural Change


How do you influence change and help people to become more engaged, involved, creative, productive and happy, even when the proposed change makes them uncomfortable; in other words, how can you be the change?


This blog contains powerful tools that can create a significant difference in the way you lead or manage change.

Resistance to change is rejection, but what causes it?

As a leader or manager, people will see you as the initiator or instrument of a change management process. You want people to see the bigger picture and join you on a journey that, while uncomfortable, is one you believe in as necessary for the greater good. 


However, in reality, people in your teams will fall into one of three camps:

  • they accept change

  • they reject change

  • they are undecided


Dig beyond the rejection, and you'll discover that people in groups 2 and 3 are experiencing a disconnect between the proposed change because:


  • they feel they have lost their power to choose; they feel as though it is something done to them, as opposed to with them

  • the required change lies beyond their Talent, Attitude, Knowledge, Experience and Skills (TAKES) (identity & achievement)

  • the change doesn't align with their beliefs, values or standards (meaning & belonging)


What you do next will cast a long shadow into the future.

Do you create a club?


Some leaders and managers make the mistake of trying to overcome the challenge thrown up by groups 2 and 3 by creating a club. You are either in or out of the club, which consists of likeminded group 1 people. The club is personality-driven with the leader or manager at the centre of it. People in the club have little to no time for those outside the club.


High-performing leaders and managers take a different approach. They take rejection as an opportunity to learn, where they give merit to opposing views and accept that people, their TAKES and their ability to adapt are valuable. Instead of creating a club, they put their energy into learning and understanding to create a powerful license to carry out the change. 

How do these leaders do it?

What is the person rejecting change experiencing?

"Most crises requiring negotiation/intervention are due to a significant loss or rejection, termination from employment, a decline in health status, financial reversal, or loss of freedom...Two or more losses within a short period of time (often referred to by police crisis negotiators as a 'double whammy') are often the 'final straw' or antecedent that sends a person into crisis" (Crisis negotiation: current strategies and issues in high-risk conflict, p. 537

Imagine people in group 3 as catastrophising change, where they are experiencing an existential threat to their careers created by your change proposal. What is going on from their perspective?

To them, the situation might feel uncertain and overwhelming, which is creating anxiety where they might see change as a threat to their wellbeing.


Emotions are disrupting cognitive functions, where the individual is probably experiencing an amygdala hijack. If the individual is feeling anxiety, then they are likely experiencing an emotional response to change, which is impacting their logic and reasoning.

Feelings of frustration and tension amplify emotions, which can become more intense, resulting in feelings of anger. As a leader or manager, you might experience ballistic outbursts or extreme passive-aggressive behaviour as the need to reject the change increases; they fight to push it as far away from them as possible.


What will you do?

Be the change and negotiate.

"[In the] negotiation stage, the individual begins to 'work through' the crisis by being receptive to suggestions and thinking more clearly about resolving the situation. In this stage, there is a lessening of emotional intensity and a shift towards more productive problem-solving. The resolution stage involves working out of an acceptable solution, thus ending the crisis." (ibid, p. 538)

To be the change, you will need to do four things:


  1. Acknowledge the emotions: don't tell people how they feel, but how you imagine they might feel. Example: Avoid "I know how you feel"; try "It looks like you are feeling anxious and angry". 

  2. Establish communication: avoid judgement, but be prepared to disagree with values. Example: "It sounds like you're saying that I have ignored you. That would have made me angry too, but I don't think I agree with shouting at Marie from accounts for agreeing with me."

  3. Identify proximal causality: be curious and discover what lies beyond the obvious (i.e. your change initiative) and find a way to frame the rejection positively. Example: "You aren't acting in this way because you want to be difficult; you seem to be doing this out of love for your team; you're trying to protect them".

  4. Problem-solving: here, we recommend applying a Design Thinking-led approach to the problem-solving phase of an intervention. Accepting you have established communication (empathy):

Stanford D:School Design Thinking
  • define the problem (summarise and get to a point where the person you are working with says, "that's right")

  • ideate (explore what you could do, what you want to do and what you will do)

  • prototype (what will this solution look like in reality?)

  • test (agree on how you will carry out the plan).

The FBI's Behavioural Change Stairway Model 

One framework that can help you is the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Stairway to Behavioural Change. The FBI uses the Stairway in crises involving hostage negotiations and, though thinking of people in groups 2 and 3 as causing a crisis might be a bit extreme, the process is valuable to team leaders and managers.

FBI Behavioural Change Stairway Model (Vecchi et al., 2005, p. 533-551)

Stage 1 - Active Listening: people rejecting change want you to listen to them, and most of all, be understood. You will need to use high-performance coaching tools, such as the power of silence; open questions; mirroring; paraphrasing; summarising; and labelling. The power of active listening is why a good leader or manager needs coaching skills because, if you lack coaching abilities, you are missing the fundamental tool required to bring about change. 


Stage 2 - Empathy: empathy is your ability to explicitly articulate "the world according to [insert name of the person you are working with]". 

Stage 3 - Rapport: through a process of collaboration, you can de-escalate the perceived crisis. You can de-escalate the situation by agreeing where appropriate; reducing the feeling of difference by addressing negatives upfront and accentuating positives; focusing on common ground.

Stage 4 - Influence: by talking with, as opposed to at, the person, you will have earned the right to recommend a way to co-develop a realistic solution (see Design Thinking approach above).


Stage 5 - Behavioural Change: you will only succeed in creating change in a person's outlook if you have completed all other steps. Rush, and you could cause the person to become even more entrenched in their position, where you lose credibility and trust. Take your time, and you will create a positive relationship that strengthens engagement, involvement, creativity, productivity and wellbeing.

Insights: be aware of the opportuities created by your limitations


As a leader or manager, you need to be aware of the skills you need to be an effective negotiator. You don't have limitations, only opportuities to learn.


To help, we have designed an Insight Space to help discover and develop opportunities in your skillset.


We also teach coaching-led leadership and influence frameworks as part of our Good Workshops programme. Get in touch if you would like to know more.








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