How to Deal with "CAVE People" Who Stand in the Way of Change

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I first heard the phrase “CAVE people” in the 1990s while working with a group of frontline supervisors on a safety program in a manufacturing plant. Someone asked, “What do we do about the CAVE people so they don’t spoil it for everyone else?” CAVE, I learned, stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything—a term coined to describe people who oppose any kind of new development or change in their communities. More than 20 years later, we are still working on the problem: How do you deal with employees who not only dig in their heels when they learn about a change program, but also encourage colleagues to resist, too?

For a change program to succeed—whether it is a small project, like adopting new safety procedures in that manufacturing plant, or a more ambitious transformation—you have to neutralize the negativity of CAVE people. These employees have a toxic effect, poisoning the attitudes of coworkers and building a wall of resistance. When they complain and criticize, they are highly influential. Research shows that employees who exhibit negative mindsets and behaviors can have four to seven times as much impact as those sharing positive intentions. And the bigger the change in the organization, the louder the rants from the CAVE people will be.

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This is why it’s critically important to identify CAVE people and deal with them before they can derail your change program. Some CAVE people can be turned around. For these individuals, the negativity and fear of change is often about competency. With the right support, they can build confidence in their own skills and in their ability to learn to do things differently. Some CAVE people, however, are not open to change, for themselves or the organization. Often, these workers are well known among their colleagues for their constant complaints—and their poor performance.

A couple of years ago, I was involved in a change program at a mining company where we saw both types of CAVE people. Many workers had been there for decades in the same hourly positions, and there was a deeply entrenched union. We knew that it would be difficult to push through the new ways of working that management wanted. As is often the case in such organizations, there were de facto bosses: hourly workers with seniority who told coworkers in their groups what to do, when to cooperate and when to resist. Two of these de facto leaders—let’s call them CAVEman A and CAVEman B—were making a lot of negative noise about the proposed changes.

With support from our team, management tried to turn CAVEman A around. The manager overseeing that part of the operation coached the worker’s supervisor, advising him to stick to the facts and tell CAVEman A what was expected of him, and where his performance was not meeting company standards. The employee, who had never received this kind of feedback before, responded immediately. He accepted coaching on his performance and training in the new work routines. He not only stopped arguing against the change, he became a champion of the new approaches, which emphasized continuous improvement efforts by workers. CAVEman A, in fact, became a mentor for younger workers, radiating positive energy and helping them make the transition.

CAVEman B was another story altogether. His manager and supervisor used the same approach—dealing in facts, setting clear expectations, offering training and coaching. But this guy was not interested. He was given an opportunity to fix his performance problems, but did not make the effort and was terminated. The next day, the supervisor walked into the shift meeting expecting a hostile crowd. Instead, he received a standing ovation and cheers. It turned out that CAVEman B’s coworkers had long been turned off by his constant negativity and the way he dominated shift meetings—to the point where other workers did not speak.

What they really resented was his poor performance. They had been compensating for him for years, but when the change program came and they were under pressure to work in more efficient ways and take responsibility for improving performance, the burden of carrying him became too much. So when he was gone, they were relieved and grateful—and showed new respect for the supervisor and manager who had finally dealt with their problem. With CAVEman B gone, the team was reenergized and helped make the change program a success.

So, what do you need to know to handle CAVE people and prevent them from destroying the positive energy in your organization? First, you should understand the sources of negativity. Research from the University of British Columbia suggests that genetics drives some people to perceive emotional events more negatively. Negativity can also be caused by circumstances—a worker may be struggling with issues at home or have other problems that affect behavior at work. CAVE people may not even realize that they are being so negative and affecting their coworkers. Sometimes, just pointing out the problem and talking to the CAVE person about the behavior will help. In Figure 1, we offer some dos and don’ts that we have developed over the years.


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Even if you have not identified highly negative colleagues and employees as CAVE people, you probably recognize the problem. Usually, everybody knows who the naysayers will be when a change is proposed. And we’ve all spent time helping colleagues who always see the glass half-empty to consider the upside. The real challenge, however, is finding the CAVE people who are hidden within the organization, quietly doing their destructive work. It is worth the effort to reach deep into the ranks and talk to supervisors to locate these below-the-radar CAVE people. Deal with them and you’ll vastly improve your chances of success.

Laura Methot is an expert vice president in Bain & Company’s Results Delivery® practice. She is based in the firm’s Brussels office.