Top-down or bottom-up? In what direction should change happen in an organization?

We are influenced greatly by what others do. We pick up on the cues from others’ behaviors and these provide stimulus to our own thinking which in turn influences our own behaviors.

Collective behaviors, we could consider to be the noticeable evidence of culture. Culture brings resistance.

An interesting YouTube video from Coolpsychologists titled, “THE BYSTANDER EFFECT,” shows how a pattern of behavior and rapport is so entrenched – it becomes resilient when presented with a situation that threatens to change it. The culture resists the stimulus.

What’s going on?

Rapport – as a conscious strategy could be described as “learning to walk in someone else’s shoes.” We are naturally drawn to people like ourselves. As with this video example – there’s a safety and security it seems in numbers.

Initially, we might build rapport purely based on our surroundings – just like in the video. This might develop to a deeper level of rapport as we start to develop an understanding of the preferences, beliefs and values of the other person. This is especially true for our strongest and most lasting relationships.

So what can a Change Agent do?

Collective resistance in itself is an example of heightened alignment in behaviors, and therefore is an example of rapport in action. It’s just in an opposing direction to the one in which we’re trying to go. Consider this: The level of resistance you’re noticing is directly proportional to the lack of rapport you have with those who are resisting.

Think about that. Resistance means you are disconnected on some level. So, if rapport is evident in resistance – how do we use it to develop a collective change in behavior? Who should we build rapport with?

Learn to dominate the system

A few years ago, I was working with a health care organization and we were looking to recruit to add to a core team of change agents to bolster the resource behind the transformation that the organization was embarking upon. We received an inquiry from a member of the clinical profession in the organization. We were looking to further build rapport between the clinical and non-clinical professions and so this was great news.

We scheduled some time together. He asked me about my thoughts on how I thought change would actually happen here in this organization. I shared other situations that I’d been in where I’d seen top-down and bottom-up approaches, but that I wasn’t completely sure here. He listened attentively.

He said that he had no idea how change happens in an organization, but he did know how a virus works. He explained that a virus will approach the immune system and it will persevere until it finds a receptive host and makes that single connection. Then, instead of residing in that part of the system alone, it will relentlessly repeat the process of looking for receptive hosts elsewhere until it eventually dominates the system. It wastes little effort in anything else.

Take the right steps

When you’re in a group context and are looking for help – the advice from research into the “bystander effect” is not to broadcast your plight to the many, but instead try to focus on making a connection with just one person who’s receptive. Then find your next receptive host. Try to focus on making a connection with just one person who’s receptive. Genuinely try to learn to walk in their shoes.

This person-to-person connection is much more conducive to the initial development of empathy. Once this commonly held human trait is demonstrated behaviorally by one person, then the cue is sent to everyone else. This innate human-to-human connection becomes difficult to resist. It becomes acceptable for others to change their behaviors, too. Many more will respond in a similar way until this behavior dominates the group. The exact same principle makes a virus relentlessly effective and efficient.

So, if rapport is about walking in another person’s shoes…think about where you’re walking first.

What are the messages on the doormats on which you attempt to cross?

Find enough receptive hosts until you dominate the system.

Stephen Manley is the Coaching Practice Lead for Spitfire, a global consulting firm based in the UK, Europe & U.S. As a qualified professional coach in Neuro Linguistic Programming, and with experience ranging from engineering, manufacturing and aerospace to professional services, Stephen works with individuals, teams and organizations worldwide to achieve transformational change in thinking, behaviors and ultimately results.

For further information, you can reach Stephen by email ( or Robert Wasson, Customer Development Director in the Spitfire Pittsburgh office (