This is an excerpt from my Persuasive Communication workshop. The previous post and the next one flesh out some of this content, but I thought you might like to see the slides – they’re pretty nice. The images are from either istockphoto.com or Flickr.com Creative Commons license. Enjoy!
Ever try to get someone to change the way they do something that they’ve been doing the same way for years? Ever try to break one of your own habits? It’s not easy. Not because people are intentionally contrary or obstinate, but because big parts of our brains operate on autopilot, in deep grooves of habit, and establishing new pathways is hard.
This can be a serious problem for individuals or managers who find themselves in the midst of major change efforts.
There are four things you can do to help make change happen:
Sell the problem, not the solution.
People aren’t in the market for solutions to problems they don’t see or understand, writes William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions. For example, prehistoric humans were probably more inclined to give up their hunter-gatherer ways to grow crops once they really understood that the wooly mammoths were dying out.
To really sell change, you have to touch people’s emotions. “Motivation is not a thinking word; it’s a feeling word,” says John Kotter, Harvard professor and best-selling leadership author. People have to feel a sense of threat, crisis or dissatisfaction before they have enough motivation to start the process of unlearning and relearning, according to Edgar Schein, an MIT Sloan professor and expert in organizational culture.
However, you have to be careful with how you use burning platforms, warns Kotter. If that’s all you do, you can create a panic that stops new action. Fear makes people focus on self-preservation instead of organizational transformation. The way around this, says Schein, is to make sure that while people feel a sense of threat in the old, they also feel a sense of psychological safety about learning the new.
Once you create the impetus for people to move away from the old, you have to provide them with a clear vision of the new alternative. Imagine the panic among the cavemen and women once they understood that their prey was disappearing from the land and before they realized they could domestic certain plants and animals to generate their own source of food.
Focus is essential because the working memory part of our brains can only hold a few concepts in mind at one time. The worst thing you can do in a change effort is overwhelm people with lots of extraneous information and detail. (For a great talk on this topic, check out David Rock speaking at Google on YouTube.)
It’s important to distinguish between the overall mission of the group and its specific objectives. As long as you can show people that the new objectives still support the mission or core purpose of the group, it will be easier for them to switch. Early man’s mission was to eat to survive, not to hunt and kill mammoths.
Engage everyone in the change.
Everyone should have a role to play in the change – otherwise it will be something that’s being done to them. People have to be able to see themselves in the new future, and that will be easier if they play a part in shaping it.
The prospect of change causes uncertainty and anxiety in people. That anxiety is overcome when people have a personal insight. People have an insight by paying attention and reaching their own conclusions. And such insight is solidified when people voice their ideas. In fact, brain research shows that paying attention, having an insight and voicing ideas create a lot more activity and connections in the brain than reading about or hearing someone else voice a new idea.
What’s more, insight makes people feel better. Just as uncertainty causes anxiety, reaching a personal insight causes real pleasure. This reinforces the learning in ways few other things can.
Craft a message that’s simple and strong.
There are three keys to communicating change.
- When formulating your message, choose your words carefully. Words matter, and many a change effort has been derailed by a careless remark by a company leader.
- Images are better than words to create an emotional connection, so show, don’t tell, by telling stories that paint a picture or using actual physical evidence or demonstrations to emphasize your point.
- Effective communication requires repetition. There is so much that can get in the way of human communication. It’s rarely sufficient to tell something once and expect the message to get through. Don’t stop at the memo; use blogs, posters, town hall meetings, one on ones…. and then ask questions and listen to make sure your message is getting through in the way you intend.
Most people don’t resist change intentionally; resistance to change is part of our DNA. So if you want to change people’s behavior, remember these four things:
Sell the problem, not the solution – you’ve got to help people get unstuck from where they are.
Focus people’s attention – be very clear about the new priorities.
Engage everyone in the process of solving the problem – this is much more important than any particular solution.
Finally, keep your message simple, strengthen it by painting a picture that captures people’s imaginations, and broadcast it far and wide.
About five years, ago, when I was still editor in chief at CIO, we began a major transformation from a print-centric media company to online. During that time, every day brought new challenges, frustrations, discoveries, joy and despair. I think many of us thought we’d power our way through all that turmoil and, eventually, things would get back to “normal.” After a couple of years, it began to dawn on us that if there was ever to be a new normal, it was well over the horizon, and in fact, we’d better learn to live in a state of change.
I’ve been interested in the topic of change since I started working with CIOs over 20 years ago. Information technology is a serious catalyst of change. In the course of my research – and through my own experiences, I’ve come to believe that change in itself is neither a negative nor a positive, but it is a force – a force to be understood, reckoned with and, to some extent, managed.
We published a great article by Chris Koch on the neuroscience of change back in 2006. It explained:
Change hurts. Not the boo-hoo, woe-is-me kind of hurt that executives tend to dismiss as an affliction of the weak and sentimental, but actual physical and psychological discomfort. And the brain pictures prove it.
Change lights up an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is like RAM memory in a PC. The prefrontal cortex is fast and agile, able to hold multiple threads of logic at once to enable quick calculations. But like RAM, the prefrontal cortex’s capacity is finite—it can deal comfortably with only a handful of concepts before bumping up against limits. That bump generates a palpable sense of discomfort and produces fatigue and even anger….
The prefrontal cortex crashes easily because it burns lots of fuel of the high-octane variety: glucose, or blood sugar, which is metabolically expensive for the body to produce.
Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps, fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives.
“Most of the time the basal ganglia are more or less running the show,” says Jeffrey M. Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It controls habit-based behavior that we don’t have to think about doing.” Like, for instance, many aspects of our jobs.
This explains why even when people buy in to change intellectually, they often fall back on the old way of doing things.
So how does change happen? First, it’s important to really understand that change is a three-stage process, not a flip of the switch. William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions, describes the three stages as ending or letting go; the neutral zone; and the new beginning.
This of course is a variation on the classic three-stage model of change –unfreeze, change/learn and refreeze – developed by Kurt Lewin, one of the pioneers of organizational psychology, and adopted by many practitioners and consultants in organizational development.
The first stage involves overcoming inertia, defense mechanisms, existing biases and ingrained behaviors. As William Bridges writes, “every new beginning starts with an ending.”
The second stage is where the change occurs. The old is gone, but we don’t yet have a clear picture of what the new reality will be. This is a time of both great potential and innovation – and of uncertainty and trepidation. Of all three stages, this one is where things most often go awry.
The third stage is about locking down the new behaviors, norms and beliefs.
Change requires that people feel at least two seemingly conflicting emotions at once: what Edgar Schein calls survival anxiety – or fear that staying the same is dangerous – along with a sense of psychological safety that comes from seeing that it’s possible to solve a problem and learn something new without a loss of identity or integrity. For people to change, survival anxiety must outweigh what Schein, an expert on organizational culture and change, calls learning anxiety.
In fact, a culture of change is a learning culture. Jack Welch has said, “An organization’s ability to learn, and to translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” So what exactly is a learning culture? First of all, the organization’s assumptions, values and beliefs must support adaptation, learning and empowerment. And, pay attention, all you perfectionist managers: It’s more important to be committed to the process of solving the problem than to any particular solution.
These days, with waves of change following one upon another, a learning culture may be not only a competitive advantage – it may be a condition of survival.
Of course, to Welch’s second point, learning in and of itself is not enough if you don’t quickly translate what is learned into action.
In my next post I’ll write about four keys to successfully managing change.
See my recent presentation, “Leading in a Turbulent World,” on Slideshare. You can view the slides below, but to read the substance of the talk, go to the Slideshare version.