Challenging Conventional Change Management

Andrew O’Keeffe of Hardwired Humans challenged conventional wisdom around Change Management in an entertaining presentation for senior HR professionals.

Looking at HR through the lens of human instincts, we can start from the premise that humans are born with a set of behaviours – an innate set of instincts which we are wired to follow. Post Industrial Revolution, most of us have moved into a realm of offices, factories etc, however our instincts remain the same.

Human instincts explains the common organisational frustrations including silos and internal competition, performance appraisal systems, power of the informal grapevine and difficulties managing change.  In this instance, Andrew focused on the latter.

Andrew drew on his own personal experiences as a younger HR Professional where he observed enough instances where people did not seem to be averse to change. If we are not averse to change, what else was happening to explain what he was observing? Indeed, if we were averse to change, surely we would still be living in caves?

There are 9 human instincts in the Hardwired Humans framework as follows:9 Human Instincts

In the scenario of Change Management, the following 4 instincts are most relevant:


In observing why we think and act the way we do, Andrew highlighted that we should recognise that human processes are based on emotion.


Andrew explained that humans are wired to classify life events into simple categories of either good or bad. This is predominantly seen through the individual’s own perspective in terms of how an action will affect me?  The human brain will quickly decipher whether news is good or bad based on small bits of information that are gathered, consciously or unconsciously and it is this point – THE CLASSIFYING MOMENT – that HR Professionals should pay attention to in relation to Change Management.

Andrew gave examples of how the Classifying moment should be managed in terms of communications and supporting actions.


Humans are more motivated by the avoidance of loss than the opportunity to gain. We put a premium on keeping out of harm’s way. When we first hear about a change, at that moment when we are compelled to classify the effect of that change, the default is to “loss”. Even though the change might in the end not be a loss, we may have spent weeks of distracting while people have feared the worse.

For HR professionals, we can better manage change by considering the primary motivation of Loss Avoidance.


Whilst it may be the butt of many jokes, gossiping or conversing with other individuals is our natural way of bonding and making sense of the world around us.  It is the human form of grooming.  Whilst primates groom each other physically on a 1:1 basis, humans will groom through dialogue with between 2 and 4 people. By taking this instinct into account, HR professionals can use open conversation to guide change whilst also giving people a sense of social belonging (another key instinct).


Liz Bell, VP HR, Thales has worked with Hardwired Humans and kindly shared her own insights using Thales relocation as a case study.  Thales underwent a huge relocation in 2013 and when surveying their employees on their perceptions of the imminent move, realised they may have retention issues if the move was not managed with care.

Liz gave tangible examples of how Thales was able to use the Instincts toolkit to prevent loss aversion, increase sense of social belonging amongst staff and ‘passing the gossip test’ by giving people information to make their own judgement and not guessing how the change will affect them.

Liz touched on the weight of the ‘first 7 words’ – a notion Andrew elaborated on as being of utmost importance in delivering messages to the workforce or wider public. Through the lens of human instincts, classification will be made within seconds, so the first 7 words will influence how the change will be classified. The subject generated interesting discussion amongst guests as to how to manage wider business objectives and avoiding ‘spin’ in communications.

Key take-outs from the presentation included:

1.         If we know our natural instincts we can make informed choices.

2.         Classifying detector is always turned on – driven by how we feel.

3.         We are not wired to resist change – we screen for loss.

4.         The “gossip test” – what do we want people to say?