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Change Management

What I learned selling shoes at Myer

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

‘Hi, I’m after a pair of shoes. Preferably in black.’ I’d heard this one a few times. I was, of course, surrounded by black shoes in one of my first part-time jobs at Myer.

There were also many times when a customer would explain how his feet were different sizes…like almost every customer who came in. I also lost count of how many people asked me about the perils of foot odour. Fortunately, 99 per cent of the feet that walked through the department were odourless.

Although I did not realise it at the time, I had learned more than how to convert a US into a UK size. It was five years of workplace boot camp. Here are a few memories:

Corporate programs are not usually very good

Too often I sat in training and corporate programs highlighting impressive new changes on the way. There was the time I was instructed to look longingly into my colleague’s eyes for exactly one minute. We were being taught about the importance of eye contact. Unfortunately, my colleague was deeply uncomfortable with this activity and literally spent the awkward minute staring off to the side.

We were then instructed about the new ‘three metre’ rule where you must offer a customer assistance if they come within your radius of three metres. My fellow employees scoffed at this behind closed doors, saying it would make serving one customer impossible if they were stopping to offer every other customer help on the way back to the shoe reserve.

I kind of liked the idea of these activities but always found them a bit patronising and forced. In the past, I’d always preferred to work with leaders who got to know you and took to the floor with you rather than the ones educating you from a distance with elaborate programs.

Workplace protocols almost always end up getting in the way

One of the most annoying times in any workplace is where office protocols fly in the face of logic. We had one new Christmas casual rock up for work a few times and then completely disappear. HR called him and he’d say he was on his way in and then he’d never show up. He had decided to simply have a bit of fun with them, leaving us in the lurch.

The protocols and processes within the organisation kept him on the roster, even though it meant we’d be guaranteed to be a person down on our busiest days. It seems the rosters were automated and because this employee had technically never resigned, the roster would continue to allocate him hours.

Workplaces make innovation too hard

It’s the mantra of most organisations these days. Innovate! Disrupt! All ideas are good ideas! However, most organisations constrain new ideas by removing any kind of freedom to be innovative. In our trusty shoe department we were not allowed to touch the displays. This was the role of a ‘visual merchandiser’.

The chaos in organising and administering the shoes reserve during peak periods often resulted in large boxes of odd shoes every few months. Often, the different styles were differentiated by tiny graphics or codes, which meant they got mixed up and were harder to find.

On one particular day, I had an idea to colour code all the different styles in the shoes reserve so it was easier to tell the shoes apart. When shoes supplier arrived one day she was so impressed with how easy it was to find a style, making her job easier as well.

I took the idea further and renamed the shoes with long codes after Seinfeld characters. A ‘Kramer’ in a size 10 was easier to find than shoe 22034527728 when shoe 22034527732 was sitting right next to it.

Meanwhile, my own manager simply pulled me aside and said, ‘Can you stop scribbling on the boxes?’.

It’s not all about the customer

After another corporate training program, we were shown a video of a fishmonger’s shop where every employee was dancing, motivated and happy. The message wasn’t exactly clear but I guess management were trying to say, ‘Why can’t you be more like them?’

I’m not sure what inspired the fishmongers. I also agree it would be great to work somewhere with that kind of buzz (but perhaps not the smell). I remember the union loyalist muttering quietly under his moustache, ‘They just don’t get it do they?’ regarding the middle managers.

Another of my colleagues worked full time and after several years of Christmas ‘muzak’, like Jazz in the House, he had enough, asking management to turn the music down. They counselled him and suggested that maybe there was a deeper issue that needed to be addressed.

What my colleagues were trying to express was that they found the environment demotivating. Corporate programs were all about delighting customers but never about improving the morale of staff.

Choose recognition rewards wisely

In many ways, the old pat on the back is the best reward. If you try to provide a tangible reward it may simply draw attention to how much an organisation is willing to spend on its employees.

In one particular year we had made some huge profit. I believe it was about $1million in one weekend. No doubt, this was across all stores in Australia.

As I exited the store that evening, the managers were standing there with party hats and handing out our prize: a mint lolly we could take from a basket. I think it was great to recognise and involve staff but the appearance of cheap mints being handed out was hardly a major motivational tool.

Next thing I knew staff were grumbling about how a $1million profit translated into a few dollars for mints.

Workplaces are filled with characters

I worked with a lot of characters. There was that union loyalist who stood cross-armed at the back of the shoe reserve only occasionally serving a customer. He knew his rights as an employee, always encouraging staff to avoid wearing the standard dress attire (‘They can’t make you.’) and to dob in managers who would state otherwise.

There was the quirky, long-time employee who had worked in shoes for what must have been well over a decade. He’d wander about laughing hysterically at his homophobic, sexist and racist remarks, sometimes occurring all at once or in combination.

One Christmas we had two trainee doctors sign up for the extra cash. One was easy-going, funny and a hard worker. The other thought the work was beneath him and was quick to cut people down with an arrogant comment. These attitudes probably told me much about the kind of doctor each would become.

As with all first jobs the most memorable things were the friends and the memories of working alongside them during the Christmas periods and over a few hundred weekends. Today many of us still stay in touch. The best man at my wedding was a guy I met at Myer.

The shoe department also supported many on their journey to their next careers, including two registered psychologists, a surgeon, a talented arts and craft entrepreneur, and a weatherman.

These days when I am working to improve organisations I always start at the point of the person who actually has to do the real work. If you can’t motivate the frontline everything else falls in a heap.

Oh, and I can easily convert a US size into a UK size.

Please forward this blog to anyone who passes by within three metres. And don’t forget the eye contact!


Dr Nicholas Duck is a blogger and founder of Opposite


Reassuring people can make them worry

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

I have a relative who described how he worried for several months leading up to his wedding. The actual wedding was no concern nor was the commitment. It was the wedding speech he dreaded.

He delivered the speech perfectly and breathed a sigh of relief.

I also have a colleague who complained about a sore foot. Although he had been doing a lot of extra walking, he naturally assumed he had a blood clot.

There was no blood clot or anything serious.

After experiencing trouble swallowing I started to worry that I had oesophageal cancer. Never mind the fact that this cancer affects only a tiny percentage of the population and they are usually older folk who smoke. Nevertheless, my brain told me that death was looming.

The tests came back negative.

Does reassuring people help?

In the face of these worries and concerns our natural tendency is to reassure others that everything is going to be ok.

Interestingly, at least in the health literature, individuals can end up worrying even more when they are reassured. Studies show, for example, that children who are reassured by their parents or nurses prior to having an injection end up becoming more distressed and worried.

It seems that individuals can feel as though something particularly awful is about to happen if you’re going to all that effort to prepare them for the worst.

No doubt many of us have felt that way prior to an event that makes us anxious. On our first day at a new job we might feel more anxious if our family members approach us with big smiles to wish us luck. You only wish someone luck if there is the prospect that things could go really badly.

How often do you wish someone luck before they go to the movies?

At work during organisational restructures and change we may appreciate and expect regular communication about what’s about to happen. This communication and management involvement is a textbook approach to managing change.

But what if this continuous reassurance leads people to think, ‘Why are they reassuring me so much? Should I be worried?’

Should you reassure yourself?

Humans are good at reassuring themselves in the absence of support. As children we learn to transfer the support and assurance of others into our minds so that we always have a virtual parent or friend to calm us down.

Therapy used to focus a lot on this positive self-talk as a means of helping individuals cope with the anxieties and stressors of life. If you had negative thoughts and worries you would be instructed to challenge the legitimacy of the concern.

‘Excuse me grey matter. Do you have any references to back up the claim that I will, indeed, die of a heart attack?’

But let’s look at how this can play out. Our mind worries. Our mind reassures. Our mind worries. Our mind reassures. The brain is flexible. Whatever logic you throw at yourself, it can create all kinds of concerns that you missed.

‘Hello, Nicholas, I know you are in the low risk group for heart failure and I know there’s no family history. But what if? What if?’

Cognitive Fusion

Experts in mindfulness give this tangle of thoughts a pretty futuristic sounding name, cognitive fusion.  All it really means is that you are engaging with your thoughts as if they were real.

Mindfulness teaches individuals to practice disengaging with their thoughts instead of challenging them.

It’s a bit like dealing with an argumentative peer or neighbour. You could invest a lot of energy and time debating with them to try to make them see reason only to find that they counter every one of your points and throw up several red herrings.

Instead, the best approach might be to simply disengage from the debate entirely.

Can you control the odd billion changes that are occurring right now?

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

In just one minute, 243,000 photos will be uploaded to Facebook. One-hundred and forty four people will move to a new home. Approximately 136, 824, 00 pounds of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere.

You are changing constantly and so is everything around you.

Larger organisations are essentially all about responding to and enacting changes on a massive scale. In the face of these dynamic environments, we set up support structures to ensure that change can occur as cleanly and efficiently as possible. Buildings go up. Bridges are built.

It’s essential that there are dedicated people to help remove all obstacles so that people can focus on the changes that count.

Think about the challenges of a Human Resource team. New people enter organisations every week. Employees leave.

Human Resources need to ensure this occurs as effectively as possible whilst trying to work out what type of person they want to enter and which ones they want to retain, train, and how to go about building all the qualities we want in people.

You may believe the best approach to bringing this stability and achieving long-term success is to control things centrally, like a mother ship or a queen bee. To ensure consistency and compliance, everything goes through a controlled decision-making group.

This approach may involve enforcing the policies and standards and having final say on all capability decisions. If you tend to believe that change needs to be controlled, then you may prefer this centralised approach.

Think about the trusty ol’ iPhone. What if Apple adopted a centralised approach managing their customers?

What if they found ways to penalise you if you didn’t use this phone? What if after purchasing the phone, they told you there was a series of mandatory training programs you will need to attend before you can switch it on?

This may seem odd, but it’s essentially what organisations do everyday when we occupy a more centralised approach to managing change.

In contrast, you may believe that change needs to be embraced and that you are better off letting people surf the waves rather than restricting them in the swimming pool. You may, instead, give people the swimming lessons and surf board, and allow them to tumble off the surfboard from time to time.

If you hold beliefs that people need freedom and autonomy, therefore, you may prefer a decentralised approach to providing support. That is, you are there to enable and influence rather than ensure compliance.

This approach more closely aligns with a ‘customer service’ approach to support where you are essentially there to help people.

Take a safety support function that desperately wants to lower injury rates. Their tendency may be to initiate more standards, procedures, rules, and audits. The importance of their goal, after all, is something we can’t deny.

What if, instead, they adopted a decentralised, customer-centric approach? They could, for example, build resilience and motivation, which could help maintain alertness and situation awareness. This approach also has the benefit of being more flexible to the inevitable changes that surround us.

The centralised approach is too easy. We mandate a new rule then shake our heads in disbelief when these important rules are ignored or bent.

Of course, simply responding mindlessly to customers can be risky. A doctor, for example, who simply orders an operation that a patient demands is not really looking after their customer.

For internal support services, responding quickly and efficiently to customers can also mean that lots of new changes occur that create confusion and may not align with the broader organisational goals.

Ultimately, it probably boils down to what a customer needs rather than what a customer wants.

And now we’ve reached the end of the blog, just reflect on how much has changed.

About 116 people just got married. 58 airplanes just took off. About seven billion human hearts beat 500,500,000,000 times.

Mother ship, this is Dr Duck. How are we going to control all of this?



Last month, my colleague, Maurice Cristiano, and myself, conducted some research to find out some best practice thinking in regards to internal support services. The above is a bit of a summary of the views and advice of some experts we spoke to with a bit of my own interpretation and opinion mixed in.

We’d like to thank the following people for their insights. Please note that this blog does not necessarily reflect their views or the views of my workplace.

Marvin Oka – Behavioural Modeller, Keynote Speaker, Corporate Consultant

Dr Simon Moss – Senior Lecturer at Charles Darwin University

Peter Howell – Group Manager HR Operations at John Holland

Michael Ingpen – Business Analyst

Saiful Nasir – Lead Consultant – Business Process Management

Craig Roberton – Principal Consultant at RXP Services Ltd

Craig Skipsey – Evangelist at

Robert De Wet – Semi retired construction innovation and bid coach

Dr Fiona Kenvyn – Human Factors consultant

Chris Burton – Asia Pacific Learning Development Manager at TMS

Sara Pazell – Occupational Advisor: Human Factors & Ergonomics/Human Performance Technologist

Marigo Raftopoulos – CEO Strategic Innovation Lab

Don’€™t worry about swimming with the sharks. Worry about those jellyfish

in Work Psychology by


The enemy approached. Facing insurmountable numbers, the Japanese deployed the razor net and sliced through them like paper. But the enemy’s numbers merely increased exponentially.

No, this isn’t some strange tale from World War 2. This recent event occurred when a small army of Japanese fishing boats tried desperately to plough through the ever increasing number of jellyfish decimating entire ecosystems of sea life.

What the Japanese didn’t anticipate was that attacking jellyfish only triggers an evolutionary mechanism which causes them to breed even more rapidly.

Each day, we make decisions that are no different from the frustrated Japanese fisherman. We confront our problems head on with force, deploying countermeasures and controls to prevent them recurring. Yet, the same problems seem to persevere and sometimes they generate other issues as well.

What we are often doing is targeting the symptoms not the cause.

Take the jellyfish conundrum. Pollution and overdevelopment along coastlines provide a rich and fertile environment for these great survivors to breed. We then overfish most of their natural predators and wipe out the rest with further pollution.

The jellyfish are now in a position to devour whole ecosystems.

In our workplaces the ecosystem is becoming more complex with people complaining about endless red tape and new roles being created to manage the chaos. A common way to address this perceived lack of order is to increase focus on compliance. You know the drill. Increase accountability, oversight, performance monitoring, procedures etc.

Unfortunately, like jellyfish, employees are resistant and adaptive. Their non-compliance triggers greater scrutiny and monitoring. And when you’re looking for problems, you tend to find them. The deviations from rules, therefore, appear to escalate even more. More controls are put in place which need monitoring and attention.

Meanwhile, because management are paying such close attention to every nuance of operations, the employees lose ownership of their tasks and activities. They become disengaged because they can’t genuinely get behind all these management obligations.

Managers introduce programs to improve employee engagement and reduce turnover, fuelling more complexity, roles, and approaches to measure and monitor employee performance. We’ve created a thriving ecosystem of complexity.

At the heart of fixing these issues is an approach called ‘systems thinking’. This approach allows us to map the real issues of the organisation and treat it like the ecosystem it is.

Lack of uniformity and inconsistent operations, for example, may not be really the problem. The systems map may reveal that the leaders haven’t set a clear and inspiring vision. Maybe they’ve been spending too much time deploying the razor net?

do people change?

in Work Psychology by

You are more likely to believe people can change after experiencing failure. Believing otherwise would suggest you will continue to fail.

We generally believe that either people can incrementally change, called incremental views, or that we essentially remain the same, called entity views. Recent research suggests that our view depends on our motivation at a given time. After experiencing failure, we are more likely to support an incremental view because we’d prefer to believe that we can improve.

Experiencing success, by contrast, does not have any effect. That is, if we believe in a entity view, it’s good news. You will continue to be successful. If you believe in an incremental view, then it’s good news too. You are not only successful but could continue to build on this success. When a culture endorses an entity view, they can be less inclined to invest in training and development of people, and are more inclined to resist change. These findings imply that individuals—possibly entire organisations—will be more open to changing their approach after experiencing a series of setbacks.

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