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The truth about people and change — and what to do about it

6 min read


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One could argue that as a practice, change management is becoming accepted in larger organizations as “something we need to implement to get people to change.” As a change practitioner of many years, this acceptance seems encouraging.

But do most leaders and organizations really understand the basic tenets of changing behavior? As we help business to implement change more quickly and more effectively, there are important truths that must be acknowledged and addressed.

Important truth No. 1 : People don’t want to change — understand why and address it

As human beings, change is hard for every one of us. Neuroscience teaches us that our brains associate change with mistakes, threats, and fear. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? The perceived risks (or fear) of changing can’t be overlooked because they map back to our basic human needs.

Tony Robbins identified six basic human needs and believes that everyone is — or can be — motivated by their desire to fulfill these needs. Fear that these needs will be threatened can manifest in resistance. How you respond to this can work for or against you:

  • Certainty and Uncertainty/Variety
    1. Fear: I am not sure how this will affect me and if I am still going to have a job.
    2. Response: This change could open doors to many potential opportunities so invite people to learn about the avenues for development and progress.
  • Significance
    1. Fear: This change could affect my role/title and change the perceived value of my work.
    2. Response: Ask for volunteers to be part of focus groups to help to define the change or play a role in the change implementation.
  • Connection/Love
    1. Fear: Other people around me are already accepting the changes. What’s wrong with me?
    2. Response: Each person accepts change at a different pace. Get people connected in a comfortable group atmosphere to discuss and bond over project updates, changes and progress (use social media platforms to exchange ideas or concerns).
  • Growth
    1. Fear: What if I am not capable of making the change?
    2. Response: Offer people different ways to obtain education, training and one on one support.
  • Contribution
    1. Fear: What do I have to offer to this change?
    2. Response: Provide opportunities for people to help others through the change by becoming champion leaders or super users, etc.

You will be amazed how addressing basic needs will influence and win over disconnected stakeholders on your project. Once you start talking to your team about it, you’ll unleash their creativity and solutions will follow.

Important truth No. 2: People don’t have to change — but they will if they have a good leader to follow

One of my professional mantras is “the leader makes the difference.” What exactly does that mean? While talking around the lunch table the other day, someone observed how leadership styles have changed so dramatically in the last 20 years. Several of us went to parochial school and each of us had a version of my third-grade teacher, Sister Felix. Sister Felix would sneak up behind you just as you were having an especially juicy conversation about what happened at recess and SMACK — down went her ruler on your desk or your hands, wherever the ruler happened to make contact first. The point here is that her style of “intimidation” to get students to follow her rules would be ineffective and perhaps illegal in schools or business today.

Leaders must influence people to join them on their journey. Each leader’s individual style in building consensus and coalitions becomes increasingly significant as big changes occur in the organization. My favorite example is IMA’s AIM sponsorship methodology — Express, Model and Reinforce. Let’s take a look at what that means.

Express: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” As a leader, your words matter. What you say and how you say it could be the difference between whether people believe your commitment or simply write it off as you delivering the “company line.”

Model: “Do as I say but not as I do” does not work in parenting, nor does it work in leading people in business. If you step up and verbally commit to supporting a new program or business venture, then your actions need to match your words. People will be watching you to see how you really feel about the endeavor and just how committed you are. If they suspect you are not dedicated to the change, they will use it as their individual excuse not to be, either.

Reinforce: Consistency in consequences is key. A quick example of this is the “save our environment by hanging up your towel” campaign. I was traveling shortly after one of these campaigns launched in a large, well-known hotel chain. I diligently hung up my towels (as the instructions on the wall detailed). I left my room that morning but realized I had left something behind that I needed. When I ducked back in, the housekeeping staff was already at work. I watched as the women threw my carefully folded towels into the wash and replaced them with freshly washed and folded towels. My reaction to this clear dismissal of my effort: “Why did I bother?”

Unfortunately, that will be the reaction of your people without consistency in reinforcing the right behavior. Not only will it derail your current change effort but it will make your next initiative even harder to implement. Determine up front what positive reinforcement for new behaviors looks like and make sure that you and your team are prepared to demonstrate it.

As change consultants, we are thrilled that the practice of change management is being considered an essential preparation for most large-scale change in organizations today. It’s important to remember, though, that the effort to change human behavior is a blend of art and science.  And the people part is not the science.

Tara Seager is the founder and managing principal of Ally Solutions Group. For the past 15 years, she has worked with Fortune 100 clients in life sciences, manufacturing, technology, and healthccare industries, building strategies that drive the “people side” of business and technology transformation. Seager is also the president of the New Jersey Organization Development Learning Community, co-founder of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society National Change Management Task Force, and a member of Women for Women International.

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