Leadership

There are several classic strategies for helping others manage change, based on the fundamental research conducted by John Kotter and Leonard Schlesinger.[29] The following are nine key strategies. Consider incorporating these as part of your overall change management strategy.

  1. Address personal concerns: Most organizations justify the need for change by telling staff about all of the wonderful things the change will mean for the organization. This is a weak approach to gaining audience buyin. When faced with a change, people react first with their own concerns: “What’s in it for me?” “Does this mean I’ll have a different role?” “Will this break up our department?” So, first things first. Deal with personal concerns first, before organizational benefits.
  2. Link the change to issues people care about: Increase the perceived need for a change by linking it to other issues that people already care about. For example, by showing how a change is connected to bigger-picture issues in early childhood (for example, research, return on investment) as well as sustainability, job security, and other things that are already in the front of people’s minds, you can increase the “stickiness” for change.
  3. Tap into the desire to avoid loss: People are more attuned to loss than to gain. Our brains are wired for this. “Negativity bias” is a longstanding survival trait that has kept humans alive throughout their development as a species. Historically, it was always more important to avoid stepping on a snake than to find a soft place to sleep. Humans may have advanced in many ways, but something scary still gets and holds attention more quickly and longer than something pleasant. Therefore, rather than just telling people what they stand to gain from a change, you may have a greater impact by telling them what they stand to lose if they don’t accept the change.
  4. Cater to people’s expectations: People generally hold firm views of how the world works. These “mental models” govern much of people’s thinking, including how they perceive a potential change. For example, they may tend to see a change as something good about to happen and willingly accept it. On the other hand, they may see a change as something bad about to happen and focus their energy on avoiding loss. You can provide all the logical arguments in the world in support of change, but if your arguments don’t match the basic assumptions and rules with the way the person sees the world, you aren’t likely to get far. Additionally, people hold fast to their current beliefs, desires, or feelings; this means that if the change you are promoting doesn’t appeal to their current beliefs, desires, or feelings, you may have a hard time making any headway.
  5. Take advantage of natural biases: People tend to see things that are happening now as more urgent than those that will happen in the future. This tendency is often referred to as “discounting the future.” For instance, when presented with the option of getting $500 now or $750 in a year (a 50 percent rate of interest), the average person will choose the $500 now. This suggests that when we’re trying to persuade others that a change is necessary, even though the future threat and loss may be great, we should emphasize that inaction now poses its own threat and loss. Also, you may have an easier time getting people to agree on a solution now if they can postpone implementation until sometime in the future. People tend to believe that they will be in a better position to change in the future; they expect to have more time, more money, and fewer demands than they do now. While experience does not support this belief, it provides people with the motivation to act in the present toward a future goal.
  6. State the change in concrete terms: Often organizational changes are responses to some sort of threat. If that threat is seen as more relevant to others outside the organization than to the employees, or if the threat is presented in the abstract, then employees will have little motivation to change. However, if you can demonstrate in concrete terms that the threat is local and will have a real impact on them, you may find it easier to persuade people to buyin. For instance, when people think about the threat of pollution, many think of it as a threat to other people in other places. In a situation like this, getting people to adopt inconvenient changes, such recycling, is difficult. On the other hand, if you can show them with concrete examples exactly how recycling will positively impact them in their local community, then they are more likely to adopt the necessary changes.
  7. Appeal to the entire brain: Often, when making the case for a change, leaders use a lot of numbers, charts, tables, and so on. Such facts and figures appeal especially to one side of the brain. But the human brain has two sides, and although they work together, each has a different way of processing information. The left side is analytical and controls how we process quantitative information. The right side is experiential and controls how we process emotional information. Even for people whose brains favor one side (for example, engineers who favor facts and figures), the most effective communication targets both sides of the brain. To appeal to both sides of the brain, you might consider the following:
    • Combining analytic information with vivid imagery in the form of film footage, metaphors, personal accounts, realworld analogies, and concrete comparisons
    • Employing messages designed to highlight relevant personal experience and create an emotional response
  8. Beware change saturation: While connecting with people’s emotional side, you should not overload them with too much change. People can attend to only a limited number of things, much like a sponge can absorb only so much water. At first, the sponge has no problem. However, at some point, the sponge becomes full, and any additional water simply runs off. The finite pool of worry is full. This has implications for leaders. Often, people’s lives are already filled with change. When you ask them to worry about more things, you may unintentionally introduce “emotional numbing,” a state in which people fail to respond to anything except threats that are immediate. So, beware overusing emotional appeals, particularly those relying on fear.
  9. Know your change: Not all changes are equal. Some are more beneficial, and some cause more inconvenience and pain. Change agents must know how their change stacks up against six change characteristics:
    • Simple: is your change complex, or is it relatively simple to understand and do?
    • Compatible: is your change compatible with what your people are used to?
    • Better: does your change offer clear advantages over other alternatives, including the status quo?
    • Adaptable: can people adapt your change to their own circumstances, or must they do it exactly the way you prescribe?
    • Painful: does your change alter social relationships in any way by changing where people work, who they deal with, or how they spend their time?
    • Divisible: can you break the change you offer into smaller parts or phases, or must audiences implement it all at one time?

When evaluating your change against these characteristics, note that any change can have both positive and negative aspects in the same characteristic. For instance, a change might be relatively advantageous in one way and be relatively disadvantageous in another. Also, as you evaluate these characteristics, do so from multiple perspectives. You need to understand the change from the point of view of those who will feel it most acutely so that you can lead and manage to the greatest success.

 

[29] Kotter, J. P., & Schlesinger, L. A. (2008) Choosing strategies for change. Havard Business Review https://hbr.org/2008/07/choosing-strategies-for-change/ar/1-