Top Down Approaches Don’t Work

“In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.” –Lao Tsu

People don’t resist change; they resist being changed by others. That’s why most change management initiatives fail — they try to impose a new view with a top-down approach.

Driving sustainable change requires more than proper communication, project management, or buy-in. People want to be part of the conversation, not just feel they are. They want to be invited to the party, not forced to join it.

Organizations don’t change, people do. The more you try to impose change, the more they will resist it — coercion fuels resistance.

Turn Change into an Invitation

“If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.” –Lao Tsu

Driving change is not easy but, nevertheless is exciting. However, most companies position change initiatives in a way that looks like a threat or a burden — they fuel additional resistance.

Designing our destiny is a powerful human experience — it creates the sense that we are all going through this together.

Here are some of the core principles I coach my clients. There are counterintuitive but work — they give power to the people.

  1. Genuine engagement is essential for accelerating and scaling change. Buy-in doesn’t mean commitment. Forcing or persuading people to support a change initiative doesn’t mean they are all in. Engagement can’t be built; it’s a personal choice.
  2. Treat people like adults, and they will behave like one. Do your rules and policies forbid or enable? Most companies control their employees and then complain when people don’t take the initiative. Contrary to public belief, freedom drives accountability.
  3. Motivation is internal — the carrots-and-sticks model doesn’t work. Most perks are distractions — they create short-term happiness and long-term frustration. As I wrote countlessly, providing autonomy is the best way to reward a team. It makes people feel valued, drives loyalty and increases productivity.
  4. People want to be part of the conversation, not just being listened to. Inviting people to the discussion is not sharing a deck and allowing them to ask questions. It’s about letting them build the solutions too. It’s realizing managers can’t have all the answers.
  5. Invite and conquer — let your team choose rather than being forced to support change. Explain the case for transformation and give people the autonomy to choose to join (or not). The feeling of autonomy drives accountability — people want to own their choices.

What if you turn driving change into an open conversation? One where everyone can participate and benefit from. Being part of the conversation means more than just being included — people want the opportunity to share their best ideas.

Five Ways to Invite Participation

1. Opt-in: Make Participation Optional

When something is meant for everyone, it matters to one. That’s the problem with most change initiatives: organizations expect all their employees to adhere to it with the same enthusiasm and conviction.

What if you make change optional? Though it sounds counterintuitive, when people have the choice to opt-in, engagement raises. You are transferring the responsibility to the individual — people have the power to join (or not).

Make an open invitation — participation should be 100% optional. Everyone should be welcomed. No one should be punished for saying ‘no’ either.

By giving your team a chance to opt-in, you remove the hidden agenda. Coercion makes people suspicious. When people are not forced, they stop worrying about hidden interests.

Also, opt-in is an effective way to measure people’s interest. If no one says yes, you might be pushing for something that is meaningless or irrelevant to your team.

2. The Law of Two Feet: People Choose where to Be

Endless meetings take a toll on people — they suck the time and energy required to get things done. Meetings are not the problem. Being forced to attend repetitive or useless ones is the issue.

The “Law of Two Feet” is an essential component of the Open Space Technology (OPT) approach. Simply put, it encourages people to leave a meeting when they feel they are wasting their time.

If, at any time, you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing — use your two feet and move to another place where you can add more value.

The Law of Two Feet is a reminder that unhappy people are not productive. No one should sit feeling miserable in a conference room. This rule provides clarity to meeting organizers — invite the right people and keep participants engaged.

3. Self-Selection: People Choose their Projects

The principle of self-selection is based on the notion that no one knows what’s better for one than oneself. Instead of having managers distributing work and assigning team members, let people decide.

Self-selection is the process of letting people organize into small and cross-functional teams. Participants choose the projects and the people they want to work with.

Most people find this counterintuitive — they believe everyone will choose the same team or projects. However, people are wiser than we tend to think. With freedom comes responsibility — through time every project gets elected, as I explained here.

Also, self-selection is not a laissez-faire approach — there’s a method to the madness. Projects should be selected based on the following criteria (and order):

What’s best for the project?

What’s best for the team?

What’s best for me as an individual?

Self-selection is a fast and efficient way to increase team performance — people give their best when they are part of a group they like.

4. World-Café: Create Collaborative Conversations

World Café is a living network of collaborative dialogue to address questions that matter. It’s built on the belief that people have the wisdom and creativity to confront any challenge — together we create better solutions.

This method resembles the intimacy, passion, and ambiance of traditional cafés — life “French Coffee Philos.” It’s a metaphor of a warm and hospitable experience that invites us to challenge the way we see the world. 4–5 People gather around small coffee-like tables. This safe and inviting place encourages everyone’s contributions.

Cafés can be named differently according to specific goals (e.g., Creative Cafés, Leadership Cafés, Strategy Cafés, etc.). Each conversation is meant to last 20 minutes. When time is up, people rotate. Keep continuity by maintaining one host per table. The rest carry their key ideas and thoughts to the other tables, creating more meaningful connections.

World café promotes interesting conversations through storytelling. The ambiance and set up open the door to thought-provoking questions and dialogues.

5. Appreciative Inquiry: Leverage Positive Stories

Appreciative Inquiry is not so much a shift in the methods of organizational change but on the overall perspective. It encourages to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to ‘inquire’ into its possibilities.

AI is based on the premise that people and organizations have things that work already — leveraging those helps drive sustainable change.

Most people approach change by trying to fix something that is broken. Appreciative Inquiry, on the contrary, leverages what is working. When team conversations focus on the deficit — what’s missing/ what is wrong — they suck the energy and motivation. People are more likely to speak about their successes — positive stories boost confidence.

The positive aspect is the focus of the inquiry. Most companies tend to ask: “What can we do to minimize client anger?” They want to silence the problem. Appreciative Inquiry suggests asking: “When have our customers been the most pleased? Why? What can we learn from those moments of success?”

AI is an affirming way to embrace human and organizational change. Its life-centric approach energizes people to move in the direction of what they want the most — it’s a philosophy, not just a method.

Appreciative is about recognizing the best in people and the world around us. It increases awareness of how the language we use, the questions we ask, and the stories we tell, shape our own and collective destinies.

An inquiry is to find ways to lift people up to their highest aspirations. The journey of discovery is about innovating and improvising ways to create the future. This approach raises participation and engagement. People move from ‘what is’ to ‘what it can be’ and ‘what it will be.’ They commit to learning, innovating, and delivering results everyone cares about.

Driving change requires engaging the team from the get-go. Managers don’t have all the answers — the more they try to be in charge, the less engagement. The above methods treat people as grown-ups — it enables them to make their own choices.

Goodbye coercion, hello transformational conversations.