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Leading through Change - 2 May 2013

See if you can identify what the following short (but true) case studies have in common.

Malcolm was recently involved in a car accident that left him with a temporary disability. But no matter what he did, he just couldn’t get better. He tried everything from physiotherapy to hypnotherapy, but his injuries remained.

Nadine, for a long time, suffered from agoraphobia – a fear of wide-open spaces – that left her locked inside her own home, unable to leave the house. She went to regular counseling sessions to no avail. Her condition didn’t improve.

Oliver is an elderly gentleman who has endured back pain for several months. He’s been to see chiropractors and osteopaths, all of whom say his back has fully repaired, but Oliver swears the pain still persists.


All three individuals are reticent to change their condition because of a psychological factor known as secondary gain. This is when people derive an unexpected benefit from their handicap. The term was made famous by Sigmund Freud, who referred to patients “clinging to their disease” as a way of retaining the benefits to which they had become accustomed.

In Malcolm’s case, the secondary gain was additional time away from work the longer his injuries prevailed. In Nadine’s case, the secondary gain was the luxury of having her husband do all the chores that required venturing outside such as shopping, gardening, and picking up the kids from school. In Oliver’s case, the secondary gain was the alleviation of loneliness because his grandchildren visited him more frequently whenever he felt unwell.

Secondary gains also occur in the workplace, especially during times of change. If you have employees who are particularly resistant to change – even when those changes are necessary and positive – they might simply be clinging to the status quo because they fear they’re going to lose certain benefits. These benefits may include power, money, ease, responsibility, status, friends, convenience, respect, knowledge, comfort, and many others.

And just like Malcolm, Nadine and Oliver, employees will never be ready to embrace change unless you first help them overcome those secondary gains. The key thing to keep in mind, though, is that people aren’t consciously aware they’re being held back by their addiction to a secondary gain. The initial step for you must be to raise their awareness.

You can achieve this by having conversations during which you ask the following questions:

- What are some of the benefits in maintaining the status quo?
- What are the negative consequences of sticking to the past?
- Are the benefits greater or lesser than the negatives?
- What are some of the potential problems that might arise if nothing changes?

Once you get employees confessing their underlying secondary gains, you’re then able to put in place solutions to overcome them. For example, you might articulate the greater benefits that will eventuate if they were to accept the proposed change. Or you might establish some measures to ease the loss associated with giving up a secondary gain. Or you might even find a way to retain the gain even after the change has been implemented.

But the first step is always awareness. As Sigmund Freud wrote: “Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.”


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