Leading at the Edge Part 2:

What a hostage negotiator knows about Change, and how Leaders can use it

George Kohlrieser is a psychologist, management lecturer and former hostage negotiator. In an earlier post on his work, I reflected on the importance of loss during times of change. In this article, I look at his views on Leaders and change.

People do not naturally resist change; they resist the pain of change and the fear of the unknown.

When Kohrieser said this, my first reaction to this was disbelief. People do naturally resist change, I thought, basing it on my experience in large corporate companies. Last year I was part of a forced change program across different functions and markets. I had seen how people reacted to this – and it seemed liked resistance to me. Likewise in many other companies I had worked for.

Any change can be perceived as a threat, and be perceived as a threat, no matter what the upside or benefit. When we feel threatened, we resist. The underlying driver of the resistance can be fear of the unknown. What looks like fear of change, can in fact be fear of what might happen in the future. This uncertainty and fear of the unknown can loom large in people’s thoughts, clouding out their ability to imagine other options and futures.

While these scenarios may be perceived or even imagined, that doesn’t mean it has less impact on people. “Perception is a slice of reality”, as Kohlrieser says. Whatever you’re perceiving is a part of your reality. And if your perceived reality makes you afraid, you’ll resist whatever is driving it.

During the large change process last year previously mentioned, people experienced dramatic and involuntary changes. Surprisingly, once they had processed the change, they stopped resisting, as they got used to what was happening. It was almost physical: you could see individuals relax as they came to terms with what was happening. Once they had a rough idea of the outcomes and possible choices they might make, the resistance drained away, replaced with sadness and the various stages of grief cycle. By removing the fear of the unknown, people could assess the benefits of future options.

Contrast this with another recent experience with a different organisation: a consultation on some changes to a school timetable by the governors of the local school. The governors didn’t provide any options or choices, giving people options, and they didn’t allay the fear of the unknown. They painted a tricky scenario, with their proposal as the only option. So people reacted negatively, feeling threatened and cornered. If they had painted a clearer picture and given people options, then the reaction might have been more positive.

The Leader’s role in Change

This is where leaders come in. Kohlrieser says Leaders play a key role in overcoming this fear. They need to be a secure base for their people. They can provide a sense of protection, give a sense of comfort and offer a source of energy and inspiration to take risks and embrace the change. They are like a climbing belayer – securing the person from the ground allowing the individual to take greater risks than they would without the rope.

secure base diagram

Trust is implicit in the relationship. If I fall off the rock face and you don’t hold the rope, you won’t be a secure base for me as I plummet to the ground. If you hold the rope when I fall then I’ll continue to go for more stretching holds.  Examples of this secure base are everywhere – parenting, sport, adventure and business. My personal favourite is the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. He and his crew spent 8 months stuck on the Polar ice, with little hope of rescue, enduring challenge after challenge. In the most extreme conditions, he was a secure base for his men, giving them hope and leading them to safety.

Leaders develop this trust through creating bonds with others. Bonds are the foundations of a secure base.  Bonds come from connecting with people on an emotional level, and then earning trust through consistently living up to this initial promise.

Leader Bonds with followers = Secure Base for followers = Followers feel safe to take risks.

Caring and Daring, as Kohlrieser nicely sums it up. If you care a lot about somebody, then they will dare to do things they’d be otherwise afraid of. The bond is an emotional safety net, quietening the negative voices in our heads.

The bond Shackleton created with his men allowed them to believe they could sail and row a 20 foot through stormy seas for 15 days, eventually getting help and returning to their shipmates to save them.

There is an upside to all of this too: Not only does change not have to be feared or resisted, says Kohlrieser, but the brain is hardwired to seek expansion through curiosity, exploration, learning, and change. This is my own experience too – that once the fear of loss has been removed, people embrace the change and new unimagined opportunities emerge.

So how can this help us when during times of change in our lives and our organisations?

Some practical lessons for change

[Informed by my own experience as well]

  1. Create bonds first

This is at the heart of Kohlrieser’s work, from leading through change to negotiating for hostage release. Focus on developing strong relationships first, as a foundation for the change you want to make. Build trust first with people and then they will be receptive to your message.

  1. Remember the messenger effect.

If you don’t like the messenger, you probably won’t like the message.

Ideally, you’re leading a group through change that you already have a strong bond with. In reality, it’s often much less clear. And if you’re talking to people who don’t know you or worse, don’t like you, the message about change won’t permeate or will be rejected. So find a messenger who has the best bond with your audience or group you’re working with if you can. Somebody who is trusted, ideally someone seen as a secure base for the group. They may not be the formal leaders of the group –  so you’ll need to understand the dynamics of the group to find out who the influencers are within it.

  1. Highlight the Benefits of the Change

When developing your message, think about the benefit in every change for the specific people affected. When you’re communicating the change, personalise or at least make it relevant to the group you’re talking to. Find out which benefits are most appealing and prioritise them for your audience. Change them down to the lowest level you can – to the smallest group. Marketing professionals do this – they’ll highlight specific benefits for small groups of people, because they know that is what motivates them in particular. Convenience important to you when choosing a gym? We’re open 24 hours.  Cost conscious? Only £20.99 a month. Classes important to you?  Full timetable, no extra cost. These are all benefits available to everyone – but different ones are important to different groups, so the Gym highlights whichever is more important to the group.

  1. Be Honest about it.

Trying to make it all seem positive will break the secure bond, signalling you’re a fraud. Being transparent and open signals you’re a realist and to be trusted. Highlight the downsides too, but after you’ve highlighted the benefits. This helps people not to be suspicious of your motives.

  1. Communicate options

During hostage negotiations, after a bond has been created, the next step is to open a dialogue. The discussion always needs to include options and questions. This allows people to choose and keeps the dialogue flowing. During change communications, present options. Remember the parents’ reaction to the Governors’ proposals – even when the choice seems obvious to you, present the different scenarios.

NB. How you present them also plays a role. The contrast principle states that how we view information is affected by what we view beforehand. Wine menus utilise this principle – the £20 wine bottle looks cheaper when placed alongside a £40 bottle, for example. If you want people to accept option B, make sure you have an option A which is less attractive to them, and it will make option B more attractive.

While this might seem like slight of hand, this assumes you are advocating an option that you believe is genuinely better for the people involved. If that’s true, then getting people to feel better about the route they choose is positive, and will help them through the change transition process.


  • Change doesn’t always have to be met with resistance.
  • It’s the fear of the unknown that drives the resistance.
  • We can reduce the fear response by making whatever we can explicit and clear.
  • Building strong bonds with people helps lead them through change.
  • It also helps them continue to take risks and not be fearful.
  • Who presents, and how we present options affects the likelihood of uptake.
  • Options and choices are critical in any scenario.

Working with change is a critical skill, and George’s work adds to the strong body of existing work. I hope you’ll find it useful in your practice wherever that may be.

For more information on all of this, you can see a Kohlrieser’s TED talk here or read his books here.