How can you make change happen?

Written by
Inji Duducu

26 Feb 2016

26 Feb 2016 • by Inji Duducu

Ever occurring change needs to happen

New ways of working requires changes to jobs, organisational structures and often to individual behaviours, especially those of leaders. 

Behavioural change is acknowledged to be one of the toughest to implement successfully in any company - it requires new habits, new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing the world.

Change is a constant in organisations, so I thought it was time to review what’s the new thinking in great change practice, as well as revisiting some tried and tested approaches.

In a review by Newton and Davis, they found that when asking employees what's most effective in creating sustainable behavioural and cultural change, people tend to recommend 3 things:  

1) Giving more autonomy to front line workers 

2) Explaining the significance and value of everyday work (this is a concept Simon Sinek has powerfully advocated in his "start with why" book - explain to people in and outside your organisation what your purpose is)

3) Giving more rewards for employee ideas

Why do these work why do people resist change?

Psychological theories such as Kubler-Ross's stage theory (based on bereavement counselling) try to explain and normalise the discomfort people feel during large changes.

Her "change curve" is popular in organisations and most people will have come across it. While it is useful for people and organisations to know that these stages and their attendant behaviours are normal, it is not enough on its own to make change effective.

The concept of "cognitive dissonance" has been around for decades - it's the idea that it’s uncomfortable to act in a way that's contrary to our identities - if I agree to change I have to admit I was "wrong" or making bad choices before and that's uncomfortable (and potentially a status threat – more on that below). Effective change focuses not on the past being "wrong", but that the context is changing and the future requires something different.

David Rock has set out 5 "social needs" which people need to have met in order to thrive.  Not having these needs met creates a threat response, with all the attendant impact on executive cognitive functioning and health conditions arising from chronic stress. These needs are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness or SCARF.

Organisational change often threatens all of these with changes to job roles, possible redundancies, loss of colleagues, a lack of involvement in driving the change and making decisions and often a feeling of unfairness. According to Newton and Davis, when social needs are threatened, productivity and quality of decision making are reduced - FMRI studies showed that increased neural activity in areas responsible for reactive behaviour led to decreased activity in executive functioning, including problem solving, planning and creativity. Most of us who have lived through organisational change, know how disruptive it can be to getting anything done. Effective change management uses involvement, co-creation, communication and dialogue to minimise these as threats, but focusing on the the three aspects identified (autonomy, purpose and rewards) may be positively rewarding (as opposed to just threat minimising).   

Change for the better

In terms of rewarding employee ideas, it doesn’t have to be monetary - the work of Lieberman and others has shown that social rewards (praise, positive feedback, even a smile) can activate our brains’ reward networks to the same extent as monetary rewards.  I’ve written before about how transformative appreciation and effective recognition can be, and the hard science now backs this up.  

From a practical perspective, Kotter's 8 steps for change try to pull together what works into one approach focusing on activities:

•    Sense of urgency
•    Guiding team or individual
•    Vision and strategy
•    Communicate for buy in
•    Empower people to act on the vision
•    Short term wins and deliverables - makes the change tangible 
•    Build momentum - choose next steps after quick wins carefully 
•    Nurture a new culture

Personally, I’m a big fan of pictures and stories, and always try and use them when explaining what’s changing and why – if you can involve a broad range of people in choosing which stories and which pictures, that helps as well, because you’ve already got experts and champions before you start.

I’d love to hear what’s worked in your organisations – please join in tweeting me @injiduducu