Bringing About Change
When organizational change, both minor and major, occurs independently of us, we have little choice but to deal with it in the moment and either try to resist it, as best we can, or to accept it. This decision will obviously depend upon the scale and nature of the change and whether or not we gain from it. Either way however, we are somewhat “hostage” to another person’s agenda in seeking to bring about a change of some kind, or subject to an attempt by a third party to influence people and events in a very specific way. In this brief article, it is therefore useful to look at how this influencing process tends to work best if and when we want to bring about change and to be successful in an overall sense.
What doesn’t tend to work when we are trying to bring about change?
Before we look at what does tend to work, there is considerable agreement amongst experts about what doesn’t seem to work well, and although there are many poor tactics in this regard, we’ll look at the three main ones that seem to emerge the most often.
- Perhaps first and foremost, when planning any kind of organizational change, failing to consider the reactions of the people most likely to be affected is likely to hugely undermine any chances of success. Anyone operating is this way is automatically “riding rough-shod” over individuals (by failing to listen at the outset or at a later stage in the process) and assumes that a command and control approach will prevail. Even if a change can be forced in this way, the disgruntlement that follows may see things quickly slip backwards or cause other problems later.
- Closely aligned with ignoring people’s needs is the temptation to use threats or what is often called the “stick” approach to get people to change, versus a more pull-oriented or what is often called a “carrot” approach. Many organizations not only use threats but may engage in communication strategies which make people feel unhelpfully recalcitrant or unreasonable for not changing. Such communications may even try to belittle or put individuals down for any resistance they show (however reasonable their input may be).
- Although it may vary in different organizations and occur to varying degrees, spreading misinformation, stretching the truth or even outright lying in some cases is likely to greatly undermine a change initiative in the medium to long-term, even if it may seem to work in the short-term. This is simply because the truth will eventually emerge and people may well become more defensive than ever. It might also act to cause people to become distrustful of all future actions of the particular change initiator.
So, what does tend to work when we are trying to bring about change?
At the simplest level, the most effective strategies for bringing about change are to do the opposite of what is described above. That is, we should:
- Think carefully about the people who are going to be affected by a given change and plan accordingly (making sure that we listen to people carefully and accommodate their needs as much as we can in communicating the change initiative).
- Avoid using push tactics or threats as much as possible, and instead seek to steer and persuade in a gentler and more reasonable manner.
- Tell people the truth and avoid misinformation, as much as we can, so that they can appreciate why change is deemed to be necessary both specifically and in any wider context.
But if facilitating change is about successfully influencing others, then all of our general efforts should be focused on making a positive impact on people, and in this regard there are some other strategies that we can therefore adopt. These can be broadly categorized as “positive reinforcement” strategies and “describing unwanted consequences” strategies.
Whatever the change required, you can describe tangible and intangible rewards if people are prepared to view the change positively and then work positively towards make the transition. In communication terms this usually boils down to three approaches:
- Offering regular praise when individuals behave or act in ways that are positive or consistent with the change required.
- Engaging in negotiating behavior, in which individuals are encouraged to adopt new behaviors in return for some particular reward that he or she values.
- Working with early adopters of a change to work with their peer colleagues in new collaborative projects consistent with the change and working on new behaviors in new team situations.
Describing unwanted consequences
Although there is an element of push or “stick” to this strategy as we outlined it earlier, describing unwanted consequences is more about making sure that individuals are fully aware of the fact that it is often more painful not to change than to accept it and move on. Once again, in specific communication terms this usually boils down to three approaches:
- Withdrawing any rewards (tangible or intangible) that were or are still associated with the old or now unwanted behaviors or actions.
- Discontinuing actions or events that help to maintain the “old order” of things. In other words, we cease to engage in behaviors or actions or events which serve to maintain things as they were.
- Stressing the human and other costs that are likely to be associated with continued change resistance or delay.
For any change to be successful we must first avoid the common “traps” that many agents of change fall into, including making sure that we carefully considering the needs of the people most likely to be affected, avoiding push tactics and being as truthful as possible about the need for the change. Thereafter we should engage in both as many positive reinforcement behaviors as we can and also not forget that some individuals will need to be made aware of the consequences for any continued unwanted behaviors.