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Why Change Sometimes Does Not Happen, Even Though Everyone Wants It (and Would Benefit From It)?

All the managers find themselves wondering at some point – why this change is not happening, although everyone wants it and would greatly benefit from it.

I want to share with you some insights from working with (top management and front-line) teams to help them achieve significantly better results. As it turns out, it takes only 14 hours to supercharge the performance of any team.

When working with whole organizations, I have noticed that in most cases (if not all cases), the desire to change is there, all the important boxes are checked:

  • a shared goal and interest
  • motivation
  • the need of all stakeholders.

These should ensure commitment, joint effort, and teamwork. One could assume that change will happen fast and easily.  But fast and easy change is rarely the case!

Most often, all the involved parties find themselves in a situation that they do not like, but they continue to play “the game”. And sometimes they are stuck for years. How is that possible?

Homeostasis – the Tendency of All Groups To Seek Balance in Their Functioning – Is Holding Back Change

Below, I try to explain and illustrate how “the game” works. 

I am going to use meetings as an example. They are the easiest to relate to, as all of us attend some kind of meeting. I will focus on two well known phenomena:

  1. In most teams, when people discuss some important topic, 2-4 people from this group talk at least 75% of the time, and 1-2 are silent or almost silent. Let’s call them Talkers and Silents.
  2. The pattern of talking and not talking is rather constant over time – those who speak, they do it almost always. And those who are silent, remain silent almost always.
In every bigger meeting, there are usually 2-4 Talkers, who talk at least 75% of the time, and 1-2 Silents, who almost never speak.

One might assume that this stability over time is an indication that everyone involved is satisfied – the pattern is permanent, so it is a win-win situation and all parties work hard to keep it that way. 


When I had a chance to look below the surface, to my surprise, no one was satisfied! Instead,

  • Talkers wanted the more quiet members of the group to speak more, and
  • Silents would like to have more say.

It looks like the perfect prerequisite to create a better group dynamic together. The reality was that those dissatisfied people came together just to repeat exactly the same dynamic they did not like. Again and again, for years (if the composition of the group did not change). 

On the surface, the decision of those people seemed completely illogical, but actually, below the surface, it made a lot of sense. So what was going on under the surface?

Why Do Talkers Talk?

I will offer some of the most common answers that have surfaced during my practice, but the list is far from exhaustive.

Pressure to Decide Quickly

One of the motives for the Talkers to talk, is the desire to reach a decision quickly – we will discuss it, make a decision, and then move into execution quickly. But if part of the group is not participating actively in discussion, the Talkers (supporters of the quick decision) will be overwhelmed. The pace is too slow for them!

The story in their heads is something like “as some are not participating, it will mean the decision will not be made or it will be made too late; so I need to talk even more to help the group get to the decision.” The result of this pattern, however, is an even stronger silence on the part of the Silents, which in turn makes Talkers talk even more. 

The Silents actually wanted something different: some wanted to think a bit more; some had noticed (or thought they had noticed) some unspoken emotions among the members of the group and therefore perceived dangers there. But the Talkers want a decision and continue to be driven by that want. 

And so the pattern is born! Can you see the dysfunctional dynamics?

Enthusiasm About One’s Own Ideas

Another common motive for Talkers to talk is that “I have such good ideas (and there are many more to come!); and I want to share those brilliant ideas with everyone.” But there is also the other side of the coin: although Talkers wanted to share their ideas, they were not that interested in having a dialogue about the downsides and shortcomings of those ideas. It was all about getting others to support it. So talking more was both a means of introducing and selling one’s own idea, but also a means of silencing potential doubts about the usability of the idea.

Back to the pattern: although Talkers do not like the silence from other group members, they like the potential critique even less. Unknowingly, Talkers do everything they can to prevent Slients from contributing. And at the same time Talkers hold Silents guilty of not contributing. 

Nobody likes the dynamics, but the pattern is locked as everyone keeps playing their part to keep the pattern alive.

The Uncomfortable Silence

And lastly, the third common motive for talking is that some Talkers can not stand silence. Even 2-3 seconds was excruciatingly heavy. Anxiety goes up, and the way out is to fill the silence with one’s own talking. So Talkers are talking because they want to get their anxiety back to tolerable levels.

The silence causes Talkers to speak; their talking pushes Silents even further into their pattern (speaking less), which causes Talkers to talk even more. No one likes it, but both parties try hard to keep this unproductive pattern alive.

These three examples (and all the others that could be added to this list) have one thing in common. The excessive talking is based on Talkers’ own internal needs (usually the need to reduce their internal anxiety), and the choices made have nothing to do with what the group needs to function effectively. The same is true for Silents, so let’s look at what was happening in their minds.

Why Do the Silents Remain Silent?

Again, the list I present here is far from exhaustive. The common denominator is the same as for Talkers – a person’s inner need to deal with their own anxiety. And again, the behavioral decision they made was not good for them or for the group. But they kept the pattern (and kept holding the Talkers responsible for the situation).

The following are some of the most common responses to the question, “Why do the Silents remain silent?”

Interrupting Someone Is Impolite

The number #1 reason is that they do not dare interrupt the other party, as they think it is impolite. Silents want to say something, but they cannot find the “window”, and creating one by themselves seems too rude, inappropriate, or abrupt. So they are waiting… And remember, how this waiting impacts the others!

There are different stories and beliefs behind “it is rude to interrupt”. Here are a few of them:

  1. It’s a pattern from their childhood. There is an old saying in Estonian that “the child speaks when the chicken pees” (for those who don’t remember it from their biology lesson, chickens never pee, so children should not interrupt adults). It is easy to perceive people who talk more as people of authority, so the child-parent pattern is activated, and I am not allowing myself to speak up.
  2. Belief that I am not important in this group, dispensable. So I have to be very careful not to disturb other members of the group (especially those in authority) in any way. If I interrupt them, they may be offended and don’t want to have anything to do with me anymore.

Decisionmaking Takes Time

Another reasons for silence is that they want to have more time for analyzing or collecting information and are not yet ready to come up with their final decision. Analyzing is needed, but for most Silents, it is a (bad) habit, a pattern, not an adequate need. 

Sometimes there is no more time to analyze, and in these situations, it’s okay to state an expert opinion, knowing that the data is not perfect. Your opinion is not binding, but gives the group an initial indication of where someone is on the subject. But if there is a belief in my head that only 100% analyzed (perfect) information gives me the right to say something, then again, my dysfunction will carry over to the group as a whole (assuming the fusion is there; and there usually is).

Maintaining a Good Atmosphere

Yet another reason why the Silents remain silent is that they think that some of the people in the group don’t like their opinion or will be threatened by it. For example, if I see that someone is enthusiastic about an idea and is actively promoting it, it may be difficult to interrupt the person, to be a “buzz killer”, anticipating the painful reaction. And I want to save the other party. Plus, I don’t want to ruin the good atmosphere of the group. 

In my experience, people with this motive often call themselves “empathetic”. Unfortunately, there is nothing to do with empathy, it is about managing their own internal anxiety through another person. I do not dare to express my point, and I justify myself by saying that “the other is better off this way.”

Changing the Group Dynamics

The list of reasons for Talkers and Silents is obviously longer. The most important aspect, however, is group dynamics – how the decisions and actions of one sub-group (motivated by their inner state) influence the decisions and actions of the other sub-groups, resulting in a destructive combination. Or simply put, these people are fused! Neither party likes the situation, but the pattern is strong and lasting. And as you can see, for very practical reasons.

I started with the claim that groups tend to maintain patterns of behavior that do not suit the needs of any of the members of the group. It may sound illogical, but when you look at the simple group dynamics based on the patterns during the meeting, I believe you will agree that those patterns are very logical. Once you look under the surface, everything is quite simple and accurately predictable.

But I still end on a hopeful and positive note. I was not working with top management teams for fun. Obviously, they wanted to become better, and they did – considerably. In just 14 hours, as they learned about their own personal role in impacting and creating group dynamics (read more about the 14-hour Team Development Intensive).

Can One Person Change the Dynamics of a Group?

It is enough for one person in the group to develop a slightly stronger emotional backbone to make the group dynamics better for all participants. As it is enough for one Talker to consciously suppress his/her automatic reaction and do something else; and the group mostly follows. 

Yes, there will always be pressure to maintain the pattern. If one tries to change the status quo, this person is pressured to return to group’s old patterns (although nobody likes these patterns). 

By the way, this tendency to keep the status quo (the correct term is homeostasis) is also the reason why the good ideas found in management training may not take root very easily in real life – there is always pressure from the group to stay the same. And that is also why it is difficult to adopt new leadership techniques without developing one’s emotional backbone first. The problem is not with learning new things (gaining new knowledge), but with being able to resist group pressure.

To summarize, when you’re a member of a group (team, company, family), do not try to change the group but work on your own patterns first. Be the change you want to be, stop blaming others on creating the pattern! 

Be the change you want to be, stop blaming others on creating the pattern! 

When you are part of a systems that has problems, you have a role in both creating and maintaining the dysfunctional pattern. 

Change in a team always starts with me.

When I stop playing my part in maintaining a dysfunctional pattern, the system changes.

When I am a Talker and go to a meeting just to experience the silence and be disappointed in those Silents who keep silent, then I am making a decision to keep the group dynamics as it is. 

Seeing Silents as the problem, I am making the decision that it is easier for me to cope with the actions of Silents than to change my own patterns. 

That it is easier for me to calm my inner anxiety by speaking (momentary relief) than to endure a little more pressure and do something myself in order not to follow my own patterns, and by doing that, to help the Silents speak up.

And exactly the same goes for the Silents. 

I always have a choice: either to tolerate more anxiety myself or overcome my inner stories and behave differently to help improve the dynamics of the whole group. 

I always have a choice: either to tolerate more anxiety myself or overcome my inner stories and behave differently to help improve the dynamics of the whole group.

Or to take the easy road by continuing with my pattern and holding others responsible for dysfunctional dynamics in the group.

Elar Killumets

Elar Killumets

Elar Killumets is an organizational development mentor, change management consultant and leadership trainer with a strong academic research background. His main job is helping business leaders operate in uncertainty and implement organizational change. Elar’s range of topics is very wide. In his development and consulting projects, the focus is usually on the entire organization, focusing on the most important management processes that affect performance. Elar is an expert in addressing broader strategic issues (eg changing organizational culture, increasing organizational adaptability and flexibility, etc.) as well as more tactical challenges (eg eliminating the negative effects of silos, aligning the performance management system with strategic goals, etc).

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