Workplace Doctor: Go gently beyond the comfort zone

New general manager in Dubai needs perseverance, persistence and patience to encourage 'comfortable' staff to embrace change and innovation.

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I have joined a company in Dubai which has a long-standing reputation of excellence. As the new general manager, I feel the company could achieve even more but the staff seem unwilling to shift from the current way of "doing things". To me they come across as too comfortable. How can I motivate them and show them that innovation and new processes will take them to even greater heights? KW, Dubai

As this company has a reputation for excellence, then remember it must be doing something right. Yet I can see how coming in new to the organisation you may see things differently, and looking at the business with a fresh pair of eyes you can see what else can be achieved. I guess it’s like moving house and stepping into the living room for the first time and automatically noticing how you want things laid out differently. But it is all too easy to then knock down walls with a sledgehammer. So I recommend you make some clear plans before you start ripping out any furniture, otherwise you may cause some serious damage.

When people like yourself enter a new company and want to make improvements, they can quickly face challenge and rebuttal with employees pushing back on new ideas and openly providing reasons why things cannot be done. These are the very natural, yet very truthful warning signs that leading this change will be tough and will require some stamina. Noticing what needs to change is one thing, successfully implementing is another.

As a new general manager looking to make his mark, it is understandable why you feel innovation, creativity and new ways of doing things will make the organisation better. However, innovation is fundamentally a people-based process. It also isn’t something you can just stumble upon or achieve alone. People do not just drift into new or better behaviour; they have to be deliberately led into it. The team may feel slightly uncomfortable at first as you are asking them to forget some of their old ways of doing things. However, if you present a convincing case for change that appeals to both hearts and minds then you may have more support than you first predicted.

To achieve change in an organisation, many consultants, authors and experts will bring you back to the importance of understanding how people both think and feel to effectively unlock short cuts to spark switches in their behaviour. I especially like one framework from two great authors that describes our brain like an elephant with a rider perched on top. The rider does the planning and analysing. The elephant provides the emotional energy. To create change, the elephant and rider must cooperate. You must direct the rider, make sure they know where to go and how they will get there. Then you need to motivate the elephant, making sure it feels drawn to change to make the process small and manageable while feeling very possible. Then you need to shape the path, changing the environment to adapt to the behaviour, building new habits and creating a system that spreads the change.

Remember, innovation and growth are continuous processes, and it is important to sustain them for a long period of time before the intended results can take place, otherwise people quickly fall back into their old habits. To make change stick, the authors recommend continuous positive reinforcement to increase the likelihood of success. If this change is planned well, it should become progressively easier as later steps will benefit from the momentum and motivation of previous steps.

Doctor's prescription:

To achieve and reach the greater heights you desire, you must appeal to people’s hearts and minds while clearing the path for change. Unfortunately many of us resist, give up too easily or prefer to stick our heads in the sand. A shift of this nature requires those who have felt relaxed for a long time to begin to feel uncomfortable. So long-term success requires perseverance, persistence and patience.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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