Leaning to People

Surprised by their reaction?

You are leading a new project, a new initiative, a new change, and you are explaining that to someone whom you need to help you. You expect them to welcome your new future with open arms.
Instead, their reaction surprises you, and maybe even hurts a little.

So, you are leading a new project, a new initiative, a new change. Early on in your project, you begin to explain to someone affected how your project will make things better for everyone and you expect them to welcome your new future with open arms.

Instead, their reaction surprises you, and maybe even hurts a little. They are not as positive about your change as you had expected.

So, whilst you might be disappointed by hostile responses, you can be prepared by considering five main reasons why people might respond the way they do. I use the acronym TONIC.

The roots of an invididual’s response to change usually falls within five areas. I use the word TONIC as an acronym for these.


’T’ stands for the type of individual. We know we are all different. But there are patterns. One profiling tool I use is the AEM-Cube analysis. It is particularly helpful in showing how an individual might respond to a proposed change. One of the three dimensions in the AEM-Cube is the exploration scale. At one end of the scale are those who seek stability, as a natural proclivity in their personality. Whilst at the other end of the scale there are those stimulated by exploring the new. We need those who can provide stability through the change, but we also need the leaders, the innovators, who can dream and deliver new solutions. Generally, the person who is more stability-oriented will require rather more convincing and might even come over as resistant to our change at the beginning.

The ‘O’ stands for their organisational history, what they have experienced in that particular organisation in the past. Perhaps the record of change initiatives, particularly in the recent past, has not been very successful – a series of failures, maybe, where some were bigger flops than others. If so, it will be harder to convince people to come on board with your change. Whereas if there have been a series of changes that have been successful, then people will be more confident that your change will be successful, and regard such changes as just a normal part of that organisation’s life.

Next, there is the nature of the change, the ’N’ in TONIC. Is the change fairly simple, or is it complex? Is it something that will evolve or emerge? Or is it planned as a big bang implementation? Will people be invited to volunteer and serve in the change, or will it be something everyone’s forced to do? All these types of change will evoke different responses.

The ‘I’ is for the individual’s history. Perhaps an individual comes with some very negative associations with the type of change you are proposing, associations that might be from a change in another organisation they have worked in in the past. Maybe the recent history of that person has some big negatives, like a sick child, or a bereavement of a loved one, or a painful divorce. None of these circumstances are your fault, but when their private life is so turbulent, such an individual will be searching for some normality in their work, and they will naturally react to your change as a threat to that.

Finally, there are the consequences of the change, the ‘C’ in TONIC. Again, project managers often focus on explaining the features they are offering, and so they are unprepared for this kind of thinking. Some people might conclude that this change will mean they lose something, perhaps a loss of influence or a loss of visibility, status, or freedom, or even their job. Different people will be differently affected, but more than that, left to themselves they will imagine all kinds of negative consequences. So we need to research carefully, if we can, how it might impact them and to set their expectations very carefully. 

These are just five drivers of how people react to a change. There are others, but these are major ones.


Understanding is more than half the solution. Having some grid or map like this, some set of anticipated causes of negative reaction to my work helps me to be prepared. As I think through TONIC, I am more prepared both to better present my change, and also to handle any objections when they come.

So, what’s the point? Simply this: the TONIC list helps me prepare before I present a change to someone. If I’m giving a formal presentation to a larger group, I might include some of these objections in my presentation, such as the organisation’s recent history and the type of change I’m proposing, and deal with those concerns as part of my presentation.

If I’m meeting a key individual, one-to-one, I might consider how they might react from what I already know about them, their role, their style of working and what I know they hold as their operating values. This helps me avoid causing unnecessary anxiety, offence or resistance.

Practical People Engagement online

I go into TONIC and other similar techniques further, including offering a nifty little checklist, on my new online course, Practical People Engagement, from my book of the same name, which is now open for enrollment.

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