Posts Consent for Change

Consent for Change

Egg about to be smashed by giant wood mallet Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

“People do not resist change, people resist coercion.”

Esther Derby


Consent is a barrier to engagement in change management. However, basic agreement is not enough. We need to get meaningful consent to allow for engagement. That means people need to trust us first then allow us to guide the change. Simply doing facilitated training will not guarantee engagement, it may even counter act engagement if consent was not given before the training takes place.

The Basics


When making changes to a work environment we need engagement from those effected. If the people making the change are the only people effected, well then you have engagement. For the purpose of this article, I will be talking about consent in regards to making such changes in the work place. I will discuss how gaining consent is an essential part of change management. The change that is happening could be a large re-org style change, a required workshop that people are expected to attend, a change of a simple process, or the change of a commonly used tool. Any change that effects more people than those planning and managing the change.

At its core consent means the explicit permission to do something that directly affects the person providing permission. Though that definition is not enough. It leaves out the why you need consent in a work environment before making changes.

Consent is really about trust. Trust first that the person has the ability not to consent, and secondly that what is about to happen will be emotionally, physically, financially, and psychologically safe.

What is Trust

Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.

Charles Feldman via Brene Brown

The above quote is the best definition I have ever seen for what trust is. In the context of this article, the thing you are making vulnerable is the proposed change. The funny thing is it always was, but we have a need to acknowledge that vulnerability.

Forbes references a lot of research showing that when employees are engaged, they are better employees. Consent is the first barrier to engagement. If we want engagement in our change, we need to start with consent.

Meaningful consent is where the person consents not only in word and action but emotionally and willfully. This represents an alignment with the consenter’s own values and principles and how they see themselves; such that they are fully accepting of what is about to take place. They are, in short, fully engaged with it.

Showing up is not enough

If our goal is engagement, then we need to worry about meaningful consent. It is not enough that an employee shows up for whatever we have scheduled to facilitate the change. There are a lot of reasons a person may show up that have nothing to do with giving consent. They may be afraid of being viewed as a lesser employee when raises come out. They may be afraid of missing out. They may simply want a break from their job.

Having people in the room is a starting place to speak about consent. It gives us the opportunity to ask for consent, but we still need to ask for it. Remember, asking shows consideration for others.

Words are not enough

Your words are not enough

If you ask for consent as a means to disarm people, then you will never really get it. Your request becomes transactional and lacks meaning. This will show up in your interactions with the consenting individuals. They will sense it and you will lose trust. You must not only show consideration for others, but honestly have it.

Their words are not enough

Someone giving verbal or written consent does not mean you have meaningful consent. When you gain consent from a person, care must be given that they believe this consent was given without pressure. They must trust that not giving consent means they are free from the change that is about to happen.

More importantly, they need to know they can revoke consent in the future. There are a lot of reasons they might remove consent. Even if your communication was as clear as you could possibly make it, they may have consented to something different in their mind.

It is important to know that many things can affect consent, and once given it can be lost. Since consent is about trust, it is not universal or stagnant. Consent is a minute-by-minute thing, and we need to be aware of it. This means we need to check in with people throughout the change to ensure that we still have consent, especially when something in the change changes.

Paying is not enough

It is worth noting that if you run paid training, it is not enough to assume that if someone paid to be there, that they consent. This really a subcategory of showing up.


There is a lot to unpack with this question. Gaining consent is all about gaining trust. When I talk about trust, I like to bring up the Trust Equation (credibility + reliability + intimacy) / self-orientation. 1 I examine what I am doing and saying using this equation. The most impactful part of this equation is self-orientation. I need to minimize how much I am oriented on myself and my goals.

Another way to examine trust is using the B.R.A.V.I.N.G. Model presented by Brene Brown. This gives you a way to investigate what is going wrong in gaining and receiving trust. it might even lead to a few of the issues listed below.

Paradoxically, for me, I find I am best at minimizing my self-orientation if I first examine what my self-orientation is. What do I have to gain from doing the thing I am doing? If I can examine this and be truthful about it allows me to then examine what my message is and identify where I am focusing on me. The next thing I find helpful is to spend time examining why I think what I am about to do is helpful for the audience. I then examine that against my own desires. Am I masking my own desires as things that will be beneficial to the audience?

Once I have an understanding of why I think this will be beneficial to the audience of the change, then I farm for dissent. I ask people to challenge me, and I listen. Sometimes, they will raise things that are actually covered but I did not think of. Most often though, they tell me why I am wrong. I find that what I was planning is not correctly fit to the people who I am affecting. So, I change, and correct the fit.

My willingness to change shows vulnerability and gives stronger agency. It corrects for my self-focus and allows me to not only gain trust but do a better job.


Once we have trust to do the change, we then need to be explicit about what is about to happen. We need to be as clear as we can. If there is a surprise used to forward learning, we need to examine if that surprise is necessary. If it is, we need to have consent to surprise the person. The goal here is to maximize the understanding of what is going to happen, so that we minimize the chance of losing consent at a later step.

There is also an explicitness that needs to be asked for from the consenter. You need them to be explicit about what they consent to. This is a step to help alignment and clear up possible future confusions. It also gives the person giving consent a chance to express their expectations of the change that is about to happen. It enables those involved to reach the clearest possible communications. It is the responsibility of the person who is trying to attain consent to ensure they are understood.

Once we have trust and have been explicit about what is happening, we can then ask for consent. We need to start by giving the person an out. Describe what happens if they choose to abstain. Carefully word the description as not to be a veiled threat. Also, inform the person that at any time they may choose to remove their consent. Then simply ask. “Do you consent with moving forward with …”.

So, when you give people the option to opt out, some will take it. The first thing to realize is each person most likely has a unique reason for not giving consent and even if that is not true, you need to approach each individually. By doing so, you have the ability to reduce the perception of self-focus.

Now, there will be individuals who will never give their consent. You cannot make everyone happy, however, this is a great time to reflect. Here are some scenarios and things to consider.

The Course is Wrong

When trouble shooting why I do not have consent I start with the idea that the course may be wrong, because it is the hardest to see. Our answers are seductive to ourselves, and it is easiest to accept, especially if the dissenters are in the minority or people, we have had past disagreements with.

To determine if the change is the wrong change you need to listen to each person refusing to give consent. Understand their point of view, and accept they are offering genuine insight. You do not have to agree with their insight, but you need to understand it.

Once you understand it you can judge the change and see if it can be changed to accommodate without losing its intent.

The Message is Wrong

Knowing when the change is being messaged wrong is almost as hard as knowing when the course is wrong. You need to listen and deeply understand people. You need to examine who is the target audience for the message? What mental models do they possess that might conflict with the way a change is being communicated? What shared language do these individuals have? What language do they have that shares words with different meanings to the language of those who are communicating about the change? What leaps of abstraction do they carry? What belief systems challenge what you’re about to engage them with?

In my post, Transformative Communication Second Edition, I examine a few of the ways communication can misfire and what to do about it. The good thing is that the if messaging is wrong you can more easily correct that. The bad thing is that if the messaging is wrong, you do not know if the course is wrong.

The Environment is Wrong

First this is really a subcategory of “The Course is Wrong”. When the environment is wrong, something is rewarding the individual for not giving consent to the change. It could be pay structure, status, or other rewards. You must first change those things before you can get consent.

There is a special note to put here. If the environment has been a transactional environment in the past, then everything done will be seen as a transactional action, even when your intent is honest and vulnerable. This will prevent you from gaining trust and needs to be addressed first.

The Person is Wrong

This is the easiest answer to give, and also far more often the wrong one. The person can only be wrong for the change when all other options have been tried. When the person is wrong, you are left with a few questions you need to answer.

  1. Can the individual exist without the change?
  2. Can the change exist without the individual?
  3. Can others exist within the change without the individual?

If either of these questions is “No” then there is something that needs to be done. I cover how to gain consent for a crucial conversation in my article: Consent for Crucial Conversations

How do You Know

The most bothering question is: “How do you know if you have meaningful consent?” That is like asking, “How do you know if you have someone’s trust?” In truth, you do not know. You can watch and look for behaviors. In truth though that will only help you detect when you do not have trust, it will not help you win it.

What you need to do, is live by your promise to allow non-consent to be an option. Also, do not forget that people are allowed to remove their consent at any time for any reason.


It can be awkward and jarring to think about consent when also tied up in the how of a change. But huge rewards are there, and it does not take that much more to get them. My call to action, is spend time to get consent on the next change you make no matter how small or big.

Special Thanks

There are a number of people who helped make this post a reality. I want to give each of them thanks.

Specificity, I would like to thank Tabassun Haque, Host of the “Agile Disrupted” Podcast for her insightful comments as they improved the quality of the post significantly.

  1. The trust equation is a good model, but like all models they are not always correct. 

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.