Leading Change: Easy or Hard to Do?

I was reading an article in the April, 2008 issue of CA Magazine a few days ago entitled “Managing Change the Right Way”  in which the author, Michael Burns, contends that it is a relatively easy thing to accomplish.

Mr. Burns’ thesis is as follows  “There is a widely held view that employees are inherently resistant to change. I disagree. Employees are resistant to change only when it will adversely affect them. If a new system could eliminate their jobs, do you blame them? But if the change does not threaten their jobs, they are more likely to accept and even welcome the change.” In other words, if the change is beneficial, behaviours are easily changed.

I don’t share his optimism.  Many things may be simple to understand but they’re certainly not easy to do. That’s my view of change management borne of considerable experience. In studies of patients who have undergone coronary bypass surgery, only one in nine adopts a healthier lifestyle. Even though the consequences may be life or death, and the benefits therefore rather obvious, they don’t see the value of changing their behaviour. Now multiply that bizarre, counterintuitive finding by the number of employees within your organization. Think your task of changing mindsets and behaviours is going to be easy?

I have long argued that it is far more productive to study human behaviour  – why people do the things they do – and to seek benefit from the learning than it is to try to fight it. Human behavior in today’s workplace, faced with the daunting challenge of a turbo-charged competitive world, doesn’t work the way many executives think it does. This helps to explain why so many well intentioned change initiatives are destined to fail. (Numerous studies suggest the actual failure rate is somewhere between 66 and 80 percent.)

Smart leaders, I believe, are those who have taken the time to understand  the relevance of recent discoveries in the behavioural and cognitive sciences to their mission of leading change and ensuring relentless innovation. Many of these findings, however, go against the grain of traditional management thinking and would have been deemed quite wrongheaded just a decade ago.

Gary Hamel, author of The Future of Management  (2007) puts it this way: “Managers are captives of a paradigm that places the pursuit of efficiency ahead of every other goal. This is hardly surprising, since modern management was invented to solve the problem of inefficiency.” He believes that management today is simply out of date – less adaptable than they need to be, less innovative than they could be and not having as much fun as they should be. He tells us that “Management as currently practised is a drag on success,” that management beliefs were inherited from a time long since past and that most managers have never taken the time or trouble to question their approach to managing. The consequence is that “prodigious quantities of human imagination and initiative is squandered.”

Conventional humanistic approaches to changing behaviours  don’t sufficiently engage people today. The manager as an understanding nurturer, based on the precepts of Carl Rogers and Maslow, dates back to the sixties when Douglas McGregor wrote The Human Side of Enterprise and proposed a new approach to management called Theory Y. This school postulates that people are self-motivated problem solvers who look for meaning in their work. It assumes that addressing self-esteem and self-actualization issues in the workplace provides leverage for behavioral change. (In reality, true self-actualization might lead someone to quit her job for newer self-fulfilling opportunities.) The presumption here is that empathic listening and persuasion enable consensus to emerge.

The reality is different  – managers have neither the time nor the skills to do this. Modern leadership acknowledges that human beings have an innate desire to create. When people are given permission and the accountability to solve problems themselves, in a self-directed manner, the brain releases a rush of pleasing neurotransmitters that enable an embracing of new ways of doing things. The human brain actually wants to solve problems and, when it isn’t allowed to do so, it enters a state of passive receptivity to commands. Why? Because it’s easier and there are no inherent rewards in doing otherwise.

This is why smart leaders view their primary role as one of asking  rather than telling. The ability to change behaviors by asking questions goes back to the time of Socrates. But even the Socratic method misfires when wielded by someone in authority trying to use his positional leverage to convince others of a particular course of action. I like to say that people love to buy but hate to be sold. This is because they can detect the difference between authentic inquiry and efforts to force, persuade or manipulate.

Any kind of change is psychologically and physiologically stressful.  Much of what managers do is so well routinized that it literally becomes hardwired in the brain. Changing those deeply ingrained habits can be difficult and is always uncomfortable. Resistance is far easier. And the reason has more to do with our neural circuitry than our attitudes – trying to change routine behaviours sends out strong messages in the brain that something just isn’t as it ought to be. These messages can even overpower rational thinking and certainly neutralize creative tendencies. This is why change agents cannot underestimate the care, diligence and time required to bring needed changes to fruition.

Change efforts today that are based primarily on incentives or threats  rarely succeed. Changing behaviours is not as simple as applying the principles of Pavlov’s conditioned response. Every individual and every generation of workers has a different set of needs, aspirations and motivators. Despite this obvious fundamental principle, many managers today believe that change comes about through the adroit use of carrot and stick or similar persuasive measures. It does not.

Our acquired mental models play an important role in how we perform.  We see what we want to see, what we have been taught to see and what suits our purpose at any given moment. This is why a placebo is proven to be so effective; if we think it can heal us, it will.

Behavioural change necessitates a paradigm shift.  This begins when some event, story or experience enables people to provoke themselves to change their attitudes and behaviours more dramatically than they normally would. In other words, on their own volition, workers must “own” the change initiative for it to be successful. Someone who sees today’s consumers as savvy, sophisticated and affluent, with an endless array of options, listens differently than the seller who has traditionally viewed and thus treated their customers as children.

Behaviours repeatedly recognized and purposefully reinforced  are sustainable and lasting. An insightful study conducted by Baruch College researchers (1997) found that training programs alone can increase productivity by 28% but that follow-up coaching and reinforcement can increase it by 88%. The best training you can offer is teaching people how to work smart. That means teaching people how to achieve their full potential in the 21st century, how to think differently, learn better and manage their most precious asset more productively – the one for which, either way, your business pays dearly – their time.

The most successful change practices adhere to these basic principles.  This is how workers become engaged, more productive and even innovative. Yet too many managers are uncomfortable putting these principles into practice. Why? For starters, it requires managers to change their behaviours first and to see execute their roles differently. As noted, that is not easy. Second, the prevailing change management methodology is top-down not bottom-up. A structure that emphasizes the creation of self-directed teams is the easiest way to bring about changes in individual and thus also in organizational behaviours.

You pay people to think,  be creative, use initiative and judgment, solve problems and optimize their time. The acknowledged failure rate reveals how difficult this can be. But the answer lies in applying some new principles of behavioural psychology and neurology, not in being held captive to traditional mental models of change management.