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How to Deal With 'CAVE People' — Citizens Against Virtually Everything

Interview with Psychologist Laura Methot by Karen Christensen

An expert on diversity and inclusion explains how to deal with 'CAVE people'.


What is a CAVE person?

The acronym stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything. It’s a term I first heard in the 1990s while consulting with a group of supervisors at a manufacturing plant. Metaphorically, it refers to people who resist any kind of change. These people bypass the ‘wait and see how it goes’ step and position themselves right away as anti-change advocates. As employees, they can have a toxic effect, poisoning the attitudes of co-workers and building a wall of resistance. For a change program to succeed, leaders have to address them and neutralize their negativity.

What lies at the root of all the negativity towards change?

For lots of people, change is something to be feared. The good news is, I have found that if it is well managed, most people will get on board. Well-managed change entails a few things. First, people need to know what specifically will happen and why. Second, in terms of competencies, what will they and their colleagues be expected to do differently? People also need to know what resources they will have access to in order to help them get through the clunky early days. And finally, how will formal and informal ‘consequence systems’ line up to keep them engaged and motivated? 

Even when these things are in place, you are still going to get a small subset of people who continue to resist — often quite vocally. Mostly, their negative mindsets and behaviours come from a place of fear and mistrust: Fear of losing status, or even their job; and fear of losing face and looking incompetent. That typically shows up in people who have a history of performance problems.

Mistrust is the other common root of negativity. In times of change, you will often hear grumbling such as, ‘Management is always looking for ways to squeeze more out of us’. Sometimes, the CAVE person is struggling with issues at home or has other problems that affect his/her behaviour. These people may not even realize that they are being so negative and affecting their co-workers. As a result, sometimes, just speaking frankly with the person will help.

CAVE people may not even realize that they are being negative and affecting their co-workers.Tweet this

Research indicates that employees who exhibit these negative mindsets have four to seven times as much impact as positive employees. Is this a losing battle?

Not at all. Many CAVE people act this way because of a history of reinforcement. Over time, they learn that when they speak out in resistance, a couple of things happen. First, they get left alone. They aren’t asked to be on change teams, which typically means extra work. Second, they learn that they draw followers: Other employees pay attention to them, and that lends credence to their negative talk. Once we understand what is driving this behaviour, we can take measures to change it.

You have found that sometimes, CAVE people are quiet and do their damage behind the scenes. How can this behaviour be handled?

I suggest proactively talking to people, especially those on the front lines and the supervisors and employees who will be most affected by the pending change. Also, talk to HR and bring groups of employees together for conversations about change. Resisters will often make themselves known in these forums — as will positive opinion leaders and early adopters, who can help to counter the resistance.

A word of caution: Setting up dialogues needs to be done with full transparency. It can’t come across as a ‘seek and destroy’ mission to uncover troublemakers, or it will wind up instilling fear and reinforcing mistrust in an already-nervous group of employees. 

Have you ever seen a case where the CAVE person is a widely respected high performer?

I’ve never run across a true CAVE person who is a high performer — but I’m sure they exist. However, I have seen plenty of high-performing individuals who are very negative about a specific impending change initiative. The best way to approach them is with a frank and direct conversation. In my experience, their negativity usually comes from damaged relationships, or the person has a difference of opinion and feels like they haven’t been heard. In many cases, their opinions are quite valid. The key is to learn why the person is so against the change, and what you can glean from that to approach the initiative in a more inclusive way moving forward.

You have identified five behaviours that a leader can exhibit to achieve more positive reactions to change. What are they?

The most important thing is to be clear and unwavering about expectations. People need to know that their negative behaviour is not going to get them out of participating in the change initiative. Second, listen to people's concerns. Show dissenters respect, and keep your own temper in check. By listening, you may uncover the root of the problem and enable dissenters to push through to a more productive stance.

I would also say, always focus on the behaviour, not the individual. Be very specific about the person’s words and actions. For example, you could start by asking, ‘why is this idea so bad?’ rather than, ‘why are you being so disruptive?’ Using such labels can feel like an accusation and sets the stage for an argument. If you are unable to come to a solution through dialogue, I suggest acting very quickly and moving the person to a role where they can’t do any more damage — or terminating them. That sends a clear message about the expectations of your culture, and early adopters and high performers will appreciate that you’ve enabled them to get on with things.

There are far too many examples of leaders modelling intolerance.Tweet this

Overall, I advise looking at change in the context of your organizational culture. Cultures are revealed by how people speak and act, reflecting organizational norms as to what is acceptable. When leaders set clear expectations, observe employees in action and give and receive feedback, people have an easier time making change happen, and norms gradually shift to reflect the new reality.

For readers who have a change initiative coming up or want to propose one, what can they do to keep negativity at bay?

I would advise them to start with the assumption that most people come to work wanting to do the right thing. Change is the hardest on people when they aren’t given the whys, the whats and the hows. It’s very important to engage early and often with the affected population — to help them anticipate what is going to happen and what it will mean for them personally. Include people in designing solutions rather than having a small group of experts create the change somewhere else, announcing it at the last minute, and then plunking it into the organization. That is a recipe for disaster.

When you look around at the world today, intolerance seems to be growing. Is that because of CAVE people? How should leaders approach intolerance within their organization?

That is very true, and it is the major reason why I recently made a switch from broader business consulting into the realm of inclusion and diversity. When I think about all the negativity going on — particularly across different demographics in organizations, but also within our society in general — to me, it’s not just an inclusion problem or a diversity problem: it’s a culture problem. As I mentioned, culture is revealed by the way people speak and act, which indicates what is acceptable in that environment. Inclusion is about shaping our culture to a point where all members can feel accepted and be treated fairly and equitably, where they are inspired to participate at all levels. An inclusive culture is the key to unlocking the value that diversity brings to our workplaces and communities.

Having said that, I think ‘leaning in’ to make sure we’re helping more people succeed is only half of the solution. Leaders also need to figure out where and how the words and actions of people within the organization are creating an exclusionary environment. It’s not just about creating new policies or training more people; those are necessary but not sufficient. Changing from intolerance to tolerance and from exclusion to inclusion involves changing how people think and act from day to day, and it’s up to leaders to model that change. There are far too many examples of leaders modelling intolerance. We need to see more modelling of positive change in our communities and workplaces.   

Laura Methot is a co-founder of I&D 101, which focuses on inclusivity and diversity in the workplace. She is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Western Michigan University.

This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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