Who Changes?

One of the challenges you as leader are faced with is getting changes done in your organization. Especially influencing organizational culture, which is an arduous task, and many an attempt fails to bring about the desired cultural change. So why is that? And more importantly: how can you influence your coworkers in such a way that you increase the probability the desired changes are actually effectuated?

Who is rational, who isn’t?

One of the standard approaches is to explain what changes are desired and why those changes are needed. The idea being, if coworkers understand the necessity for change, of course they will tag along and do what is necessary. This approach seldom works, though, thanks to the fundamentally flawed assumption that people are rational beings. Somewhere between the 95% and 98% of the decisions a person makes are not conscious decisions. In other words, by far the most decisions you and your coworkers make are not even thought through, that is, are irrational. (By the way, an irrational decision isn’t necessarily a wrong or a bad decision!) This is also why the rational approach doesn’t really work: your arguments elicit resistance, whether spoken out or not.

No emotions in the professional arena?

Another fundamentally flawed myth is that emotions play no role in the organizational context — that people (especially those who want to climb the organizational ladder) excel at leaving emotions out of the (work-)equation. If only 3% – 5% of decisions are rational, what are the others based on? Unconscious decisions are largely based on emotions. Everything you have ever learned was based on emotions. The reality-check is therefore: you and your coworkers are primarily emotional beings, not rational beings. The lesson: appreciate the role emotions play in getting people to change!

Back to the question: who changes?

Timothy Leary teaches us an important lesson: behavior elicits behavior. So if you want different behavior from your coworkers, you will first need to change your own behavior. And if you do that in a clever way, you increase the chances your team is going to adopt the changes you want to see in the organization.

Your first change is your attitude towards resistance.

When you see resistance as unwanted and unpleasant, you limit your possibilities. When you see resistance as natural, the result of commitment either to the coworkers’ own goals or their engagement with organizational objectives, it becomes the most powerful tool to actually implement change. Resistance is a signal for dialog. Resistance means: take me seriously.

Pull. Don’t push.

When you push change, you disrespect your coworkers need for autonomy and mastery and damage their feeling of connection whilst you’re about it. Pulling change means respecting the competence of your coworker, thereby respecting their need for mastery. By involving them up-front in the whole change process, taking them seriously and valuing their input, you increase their feeling of having influence, of having some control of their (work) environment. Especially when you listen to the reasons they give why a particular change isn’t attractive. A powerful question in this regard is Art Petty’s (slightly modified) suggestion: "Under what conditions would you be willing to collaborate towards this change?"

Whenever possible, get coworkers to initiate change.

Sometime you will need to initiate change. It’s better to lead change. Leading change means asking the right questions so that your team takes initiative. For example, by openly discussing the challenges you see and asking them what they think about that and how they would tackle the challenge. And, of course, facilitating them so as to make change possible.

In summary, if you want commitment to change from your coworkers, the best route is to involve them up front, recognize resistance for what it is, and take coworkers’ emotions (and objections) very seriously. In this way, you lead change rather than push change.