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“Demonstrating Empathy Is Half the Battle.”

People resist embracing new things for four fundamental reasons. David Schonthal, author of The Human Element, explains how to overcome change resistance and prevent friction clashes.

“Demonstrating Empathy Is Half the Battle.”

David, in The Human Element, you identify four types of friction affecting change processes. You also provide helpful advice on how to deal with them. Before we get to the roots of change aversion and counter strategies: How did you research these frictions, and what prompted your book?

David Schonthal: There were two catalysts for this. Number one: I worked in the entrepreneurship and venture capital space for many years with many up-and-coming startups creating fantastic new products or services that – if the audience accepted – would really make meaningful change. Yet, no matter what positive feedback they received from their customers during the design process, when they were finally launched, all that evaporated. I have seen so many startups scratch their heads, saying, “We created exactly what our customers wanted, and now that we’re delivering it to them, they’re reluctant to adopt.” This reluctance has been a constant source of mystery and frustration in the world of startups – and therefore fascinated me.

And number two?

I also spent ten years at IDEO. There, we experienced a similar phenomenon, but focused on corporate innovation: “Why do corporations that create interesting things have them rejected by the organization itself?” For a large part of my career, I assumed that if they weren’t saying yes, there was something wrong with the product, there was something wrong with the way we were marketing it, there was something wrong with the processes or the business model. And then, several years ago, my colleague, psychologist Loran Nordgren, and I started discussing these questions. Rather than looking at it from a problem or a product standpoint, we decided to think about some of the psychological forces that prevent the audience from saying yes to something they might otherwise be interested in adopting. The result is our book, The Human Element.

Image of: The Human Element
Book Summary

The Human Element

Identify – and overcome – the frictions that hamper change and innovation.

Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal Wiley
Read Summary

So, let’s talk about change and change frictions. Leaders should read your book because they set the tone when driving something new and enabling change. Right?

While everybody talks about innovation, business leaders and entrepreneurs indeed tend to get false positives from the market about people’s willingness to change. They sometimes ignore the difference between desiring change and desiring the process of changing.

There are likely many people who are excited by the outcome of what change means but are relunctant to go through the journey to get there.

May I share an image that illustrates the driving forces of change and people changing to set the stage?

Of course.

There are typically two forces at play when change is in the works. To understand them, think of an airplane and what makes it fly. First, there’s fuel: That is all the forces that propel people towards change, their “destination.” Fuel can be very powerful, and its sources can be things like the advent of a new technology that disrupts the way we work or a new regulation that changes how we must behave. Or a new customer demand we’ve got to meet. A fueled plane may pick up the necessary speed, but that alone is not enough to fly. Without the right aerodynamics, it won’t take off. Gravity will keep the plane on the ground if the wings are not appropriately shaped – likely resulting in a crash. That’s why our book argues that there’s a second side of the equation: Friction. Frictions are the forces that oppose change. In the airplane metaphor, these would be the forces of things like gravity, drag and wind resistance.

A plane needs to be both powerful as well as aerodynamic to fly. So too must a new idea.

In The Human Element, you outline four basic types of friction. Can you quickly recap them?

Sure. People resist embracing new things for four fundamental reasons: inertia, effort, emotion and reactance. These frictions are the forces that keep the idea on the ground. Rather than increasing the appeal of the idea – which many leaders instinctively try to do when they want to see new things happen – we suggest making it easier for people to adopt it. We do this by removing the four types of friction that stand in the way and develop the right counter strategies in the right situation.


  • People resist embracing new things for four reasons: inertia, effort, emotion, and reactance.
  • No matter how good a new idea is, it can’t be implemented through arguments and benefits alone.
  • ChatGPT is an excellent example of the power in friction removal.

Let’s start with the last one you mentioned, reactance. This friction refers to how people’s desire for autonomy can arouse resistance if they feel someone’s stepping “into their garden, right?

Indeed, and that’s a particularly powerful one: Reactance is a friction that highlights how we are very opposed to being changed by others. Again:

We may like the idea of the change on its face, but the fact that the change is being imposed upon us makes us resistant to it no matter how good it might be.

I see this daily with my 11-year-old daughter: No matter how reasonable I think an idea is, because it’s my idea and not her idea, she will dig her heels in.

In this case, you suggest guiding people to arrive at a decision or conclusion you seek of their own accord – for example, by asking “Yes”-questions.

Indeed. To avoid reactance, invite your audience to persuade themselves that the change is a good idea. Rather than telling them about the change and “selling” it to them, invite them to open to the argument based on their terms. This completely diffuses reactance. Instead of promoting or forcing something, ask people for their advice about a problem that you’re facing and help them arrive at the solution. Or get them to talk about a time when they’ve experienced something similar in another context. Having them warm up to it on a personal level can be a way of diffusing reactance, too. Finally, inviting them into the design process changes them from “The person being changed” to “The architect of the change itself.”

What differs when one faces the first friction you introduce in the book – inertia?

Inertia is our tendency to stick with what we know, despite the fact that we are aware that the status quo is no longer working. You can deal with it only by acknowledging that people usually react adversely to a change idea the first time they hear it. So, suppose a leader gets on stage at an all-hands meeting and says, “We’re going to change how we operate,” or “We’re going to modernize,” or “We’re going to be more innovative,” or “We’re going to transform digitally.” In these cases, most people’s first reaction is, “Nope, I’m cool.” Or: “Surely this is going to affect me somehow negatively.”

Won’t you ever change that?


People will always be resistant the first time they hear something new that requires them to change. To defuse this friction, give people time to get used to a new idea.

Remember: As the leader proposing change, you have already had that time to get comfortable with the change. Business leaders tend to forget that while they’ve been talking about strategy and opportunities in executive or senior leadership team meetings for weeks. But when they unveil that change at an all-hands meeting they expect their employees – who are learning about it for the first time – to stand up and cheer after twenty minutes. That is simply unrealistic and, to a certain extent, unfair. Instead, give people time to warm up.

That sounds good, but some companies may not have that time. When disruptive change happens, they need to be faster. Nowadays, everyone is talking about ChatGPT, and its mechanics are hard to understand – yet businesses must adopt such AI solutions quickly. How can they make the introduction more accessible to their people?

Think back to the plane analogy: ChatGPT – or whatever disruptive technology you can name – is a source of fuel. And it is so powerful that inaction may be a death sentence for certain businesses. Yet precisely this source of fuel also leads to inertia and reactance. So, from an organizational perspective, rather than frame this as an inevitability, it makes sense to have people explore the possible opportunities the technology opens for how they work. Regarding AI, there is an essence of reframing: Yes, this will probably render some of what we do obsolete. But does this also unlock the potential for us to practice what we do in new ways that add value to our customers or make circumstances more rewarding in our jobs? This is a version of co-design. However, you should not make the common mistake of hammering out platitudes or sugarcoating apparent problems. Doing so can lead to another friction: Emotion. A blockage due to unintended – and undesired – negative feelings such as fear and anxiety.

Anxiety? Fear of becoming obsolete…

Yes. I think the lack of understanding about what all the AI buzz means triggers a lot of emotional friction for people. And if you, as a leader, don’t have empathy for what they’re concerned about, you might be speaking to them in a way that amplifies fears – especially and counterintuitively – if you try hard to defuse them. To avoid this, follow three steps: First, recognize that emotion, not just rationale, affects people’s choices. There is emotion involved in every decision you make, from buying a piece of gum to deciding about a possible merger. Secondly, factor that knowledge into how you introduce new ideas. Start with acknowledging that you hear and respect people’s feelings. Third, think about how you might co-design a solution that makes everybody more comfortable. I wouldn’t want to create the impression that you can eliminate people’s anxiety but you can deal with it more productively. Simply demonstrating empathy is half the battle.

Can you translate this into the example of introducing ChatGPT into an organization’s workflows?

If I was trying to introduce AI into my workflow or into my business, I need to be very aware that most people I work with will probably be fearful of it. So, remind yourself of the fact that emotions are at play. Then, open to them by making them aware that you take their concerns seriously.

Being mindful and respectful of their anxieties is essential to get people a little more comfortable with what could otherwise be a scary shift.

Then, I’d talk to people. I’d spend some time with my employees and say, “Tell me what you’re afraid of when it comes to AI. How do you think it will affect your job in the best-case scenario? What do you think it’s going to do for you? But in a worst-case scenario, what do you think it might do?” It’s much easier to address these fears when they’re out on the table versus contained inside of somebody’s brain. Plus, as simple as it sounds, creating the space to allow others to share their concerns demonstrates care. When people are involved and feel appreciated for their input, frictions may begin to melt.

Image of: Change Management

Change Management

Change can be exciting or stressful, or both. Organizations can’t grow without change, but deciding how, when and why to change depends on…

Open Channel

That already leads to the fourth friction you outline in the book: When people – must – choose different paths, they usually obey the “law of least effort.” This friction is so powerful it even distorts people’s perceptions. How can one reduce this?

If you want to stay with the example of GPT, there’s an interesting juxtaposition, which is why we are all talking about it in the first place. The main reason for its success is not just the computing power of GPT. It’s the design of its interface – as a chatbot. It is super easy to use because the people at OpenAI designed it effectively to be a “natural language web browser.” Everyone knows how to use a web browser, and by designing the product in this way, they removed much of the friction associated with its novelty. It diffused both the friction of effort and inertia. Before 2023, if you wanted to utilize the benefits of AI, you probably had to be a data scientist, a developer, or a hacker. For the rest of us, interactions with AI seemed esoteric. ChatGPT made a strange idea more familiar. Now, with OpenAI’s new APIs, they made it super easy to integrate the tech into existing products and business models. This goes to effort: One of the reasons it’s catching fire in businesses is because they’ve made it so effortless to adopt.

ChatGPT is, therefore, a great example of the power in friction removal.

With this in mind, incorporate such new technology into familiar environments or take advantage of the features companies are now coming to market with.

Now we’ve discussed how to defuse friction regarding the necessary change. But, to conclude on an entirely different note: Do you have some good words about friction, too?

Of course. It takes us back to my work in the startup space I told you about initially. Starting a business has never been easier than today. It is 99% cheaper than in the year 2000, and if you have a decent idea, you can start selling anything you want online immediately. The problem with that is: It’s frictionless. We now have a glut of startups “solving problems” that are either duplicative or nobody cares about. As a result, we’re inundated with thousands of businesses that frankly shouldn’t exist. Back in the day, when it used to cost a couple of million bucks to get an Internet startup off the ground, you had to know that this would be worthwhile. You had to convince investors that it was a good idea. And frankly, that friction was an arbiter of what was a good business and what wasn’t.

So, in some ways, friction is helpful.

Yes, sometimes we even design friction into systems and processes to tease out good ideas from bad ideas – or good businesses from bad businesses. Or good candidates in a job interview from the bad. It’s not that friction is a problem per se. Often, using friction creatively can help arrive at a better outcome.

About the Author
David Schonthal is a professor of strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management, teaching new venture creation, design thinking, healthcare innovation and creativity. Together with Loran Nordgren, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, he wrote The Human Element.

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