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August 3, 2010 / Tony Arena

Rethinking How to Get Employees to Change

Persuading employees to make lasting changes in their behavior isn’t easy. Keith McFarland highlights lessons from a new book that might make you more effective at it

By Keith McFarland

Dan and Chip Heath have done it again.

Their 2008 Made to Stick was one of the most fun books on marketing in years—and became an instant classic. In their new book, Switch, the brothers Heath take on the subject of organizational change, and they make the often dry, sentimental, and buzz-word-laden subject suddenly relevant for anyone trying to get a bunch of people to change directions.

The book opens with a story from the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University. Researchers set up at a movie theater and gave movie goers a free soft drink and bucket of popcorn—in exchange for them answering some questions about the concession stand at the end of the movie. Some of the moviegoers got a medium-size bucket of popcorn, and others got a huge tub. But here’s the kicker—both groups were given five-day-old popcorn that was so stale it squeaked. The questions at the concession stand were just a ruse—food researchers were studying how portion size influences eating.

And does it ever. People given the big tub ate 53% more of the practically inedible stuff than people given the medium bucket.

A Situation, Not a People, Problem

If you didn’t know about the different containers, you’d probably scan the data and quickly assume that the participants could be easily divided into categories: Those with self control and those without it. You might jump to the conclusion that this was a people problem—and you might try to change the behavior of the people by punishing overeating or educating people on the perils of a high calorie diet. But you’d be wrong. What might look to be a people problem turns out to be a situation problem. The experiment was repeated often enough, controlling for all the known variables for researchers to explain the difference statistically with a very simple formula: When it comes to popcorn consumption, bigger bucket equals more eating.

If you are like me, by the time you get to page 2 in this book, you’ll already be thinking about all your past efforts to create change in your own business. How many of those efforts stalled not because people are hopelessly resistant to change (they are not), but because we unknowingly created situations that encourage people to behave in ways contrary to the very direction of change we are trying to foster.

In my research on companies, I’ve found that leaders frequently jump to the conclusion they have a people problem when they really have a situation problem. Companies spend too much time worrying about getting the right people and not enough time worrying about getting the people right, (creating situations in a company where the natural response for employees is to perform at a high level).

Motivating the Elephant

Switch is full of other gems, too. The book is organized around an incredibly useful analogy from University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt (he wrote The Happiness Hypothesis). When trying to get a human to change (anything from losing weight to embracing a new IT system), think of him as made up of two parts: The elephant and the rider. The elephant is his emotional side, and the rider is his rational side. Like the rider of an elephant, a person’s rational side has theoretical control of the emotional side, but it is a precarious control. Far too often, the elephant runs off with the rider (we order that chocolate cake, dash off that scathing e-mail, or can never seem to find time to get our department behind that new corporate initiative).

According to Switch, there are three basic ways to help ensure that the change you are trying to make in your company actually sticks. You can (a) direct the rider (largely by reducing ambiguity about specifically what kind of change is needed); (b) motivate the elephant (often by finding things that trigger people’s visceral response to a need for change; and (c) shape the path—so the elephant and rider can proceed more easily and directly to the goal.

Early in the book is the delightful story of Jon Stegner—who was tasked with reducing costs at a major manufacturing company. He believed the company’s decentralized procurement system was wasting millions, but he knew that the divisions’ elephants (emotions) would run for the jungle if they thought their autonomy or independence were being threatened. He needed to find a way to motivate the elephant. Then the college intern Stegner had hired made a discovery—each division in each factory ordered its own work gloves. The company was purchasing 424 different types of gloves, ranging in price from $3.22 to $17 per pair. Stegner’s intern retrieved a pair of each type, added a price tag, piled all 424 pairs on a conference table in the boardroom, and invited all the division presidents to visit the “glove shrine.” People’s response was immediate and visceral: This is crazy. We’ve got to stop this. Stegner got the elephant on his side.

Any leader looking to create change in his organization need not look beyond this little book. It is packed with examples and hands-on tools that will get you moving right away. And it is really a fun read.

Keith McFarland is the #1 bestselling author of The Breakthrough Company, and BOUNCE. He is founder of McFarland Strategy Partners .


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