The Two Myths of Change

What makes a leader successful? In essence, it’s all about influence. Whatever your leadership style, the nature of your organization, etc., you as leader want to influence your team members to do the things that are good for your organization and the things that are (even) better for the organization, thereby making it an excellent organization.

Having influence means the ability to actually change the behavior of your team members. So if it’s all about change, what makes change so tricky to effectuate? I believe there are two myths that block many an attempt to influence team members.

Myth 1: Give the Right Reasons

Of course, a team member should know why a particular change is necessary—the myth is that merely giving enough reasons is sufficient. The myth is sometimes called the empty-barrel paradigm: people behave the way they do because of a lack of knowledge (the empty barrel), so once you fill that barrel with the correct knowledge, the team member will naturally switch to the desired way of doing things. Several examples illustrate why this paradigm is an illusion. Most people know, for example, that smoking is bad for you. So a very large percentage of the population already has the correct reasons in their mind why they shouldn’t smoke. Yet a considerable percentage doesn’t act on this knowledge. Also regarding skills, merely teaching a team member a new skill is seldom enough—think of the average payoff for a communication training, for example: after two or three days everyone is behaving exactly the same way as before the training.

Merely a campaign isn’t enough.

The first conclusion is, therefore, that a campaign without follow-through only makes people aware of something and seldom leads to actual (behavioral) change.

Myth 2: It’s All About Attitude

If a team member has a negative attitude towards the new way of doing things, chances are they won’t make the switch. The illusion is that if a team member has a positive attitude towards the change, this is enough to get them into action. In practice, this often isn’t enough. Many people who smoke have a negative attitude towards their smoking and still don’t bother to stop. Many team members may have had a good communication training in giving feedback, feel positively inclined towards this principle, and yet don’t translate it into action. There may be many reasons for this, such as not believing their feedback will be taken seriously or an organizational culture that doesn’t support it. The second conclusion is that it takes more than only the correct knowledge and the right attitude—you want your coworker to intend to change.

So what do you need?

Summarizing: it’s obvious team members should be aware of the necessity for the planned change and have a positive attitude towards it. The clue is getting them to commit to the intention to change their behavior. This requires the correct knowledge, plus a positive attitude combined with the belief they can successfully execute the new behavior, and an organizational culture in which everyone embraces the new way of working. Easier said than done. Awareness and attitude are best influenced by engaging in a meaningful dialog from the very start of the change process. Instilling the belief in their own capability starts with showing you trust the team member’s competence, and is enhanced by a safe environment in which calculated risk-taking is encouraged. And the best way to implement the organizational change necessary to embrace the new way of doing things is using role models. That is why the change needs to be lived top-down, not bottom up.

A last tip: punishing old behavior is likely to lead to resistance. Nudging works far better. Nudging means making the new way of working attractive, preferably in such a way that it becomes more enjoyable to perform tasks in this new manner.

Note: This post originally ran on the Lead Change Group site on the 8th of November, 2019.