3 mistakes in change management

“How do you convince people to change?”

This was a question from a participant in a workshop I led on Crucial Conversations. It’s a common challenge for leaders: how do you influence others to adopt your ideas?

Here are the mistakes many leaders make:

  1. “It’s a good idea, surely they will see the benefits.

There are plenty of good ideas that have whistled past, missing the mark.

Just because it’s a good idea doesn’t mean people are going to like it.

The rational case for a good idea will only you get so far. As Chip and Dan Heath say in their book, ‘Switch’,

it’s like trying to convince an elephant to go somewhere it doesn’t want to go. The elephant rider is the rational mind, and the elephant is the subconscious emotional mind. If the elephant doesn’t like the direction it’s heading, it won’t go. There’s no amount of cajoling that will convince an elephant to change its course.

For example, there is a brilliant case for Queensland cane farmers to switch to growing rice: the yields are better, the profits are better. It seems like a no-brainer. However, the emotional case for the cane farmer to shift their identity from a successful cane farmer to a rookie rice grower has not been made. Better the devil you know is what is holding people back here.

An idea needs to have emotional, right brain appeal, as well as rational, left brain appeal. We persuade with stories, images, emotions, and we justify it with facts, figures and statistics.

  1. “That group of people is really change resistant.

People are not resistant to change. People embrace change all the time, willingly. We get married, have babies, move hemispheres, take promotions, try new restaurants.

Just because they don’t like it doesn’t mean they are ‘change resistant’ a.k.a. fuddy duddies.

Change means something new. This can be seen as an opportunity or a threat. If the conditions of the change are not handled well, this can trigger survival fears in us, and we react in a primal way.

There is a hierarchy of change threats that are pressure points for us, depending on our current life situation and stage of leadership maturity. I have mapped these against Susanne Cook-Greuter’s leadership maturity framework and stages of leadership development. (see http://www.cook-greuter.com/)

Leadership Maturity Stage Change Pressure Point Detail


Opportunist Uncertainty Base line survival instincts activated Communication
Diplomat Exclusion Fear of not belonging anymore, no sense of safety Reassurance
Expert Fairness Lack of equity, missing out  Consultation
Achiever Overwork Exhaustion, competence and reputation at risk Delegation
Individualist Lack of choice Autonomy threatened Engagement
Strategist Social regression Social progress, inclusion and equity are under pressure Participation

We can get triggered by one or more of the pressure points, depending how integrated we are through each stage of our development, and other life conditions. For example, if we are struggling with health issues and family challenges at the same time as a work change initiative, we will likely be triggered by some of the earlier stages pressure points. Uncertainty can tip us in to survival mode. This may look a lot like ‘change resistance’.

  1. “If we change the system, then that will fix the problem.

In his book, The Five Literacies of Global Leadership,

Richard Hames outlines the different layers that drive a visible result in a community, society, or organisation. At the top of the pyramid is the visible layer: what we can see. This is observable behaviour. This is where many change initiatives go to first: let’s fix the visible behaviour. This is much like saying, “People smoke. Let’s stop them smoking by removing cigarettes.” It doesn’t work so well.

The next layer down is the system that supports the behaviour. Some change initiatives try to address the issue from here. For example, ‘Let’s tax the cigarettes more heavily as a deterrent and add strict packaging legislation.” This helped somewhat, but did not result in a blanket adaptation of non-smoking behaviour.

The third layer down is the worldview. These are the values and patterns of thinking that perpetuate the system and the behaviour. With smoking, there is a deep link to social image and sense of belonging, as well as an addiction, psychological and physical. The anti-smoking campaign asserted a lot of effort here to change affiliated imagery and stories about smoking. There was a move away from the cool Marlboro Man on horseback, to pervasive images of rotting teeth and gangrenous limbs.

The deeper layer is the Metalanguage. Hames describes this aspect as the ‘code that compels us to see and explain the world in this way.’ For smokers, the deep seated Metalanguage is often about personal choice: “it’s my life, I’ll live it the way I want”. Often at any cost, including their own life. This is the metalanguage that has not yet been transformed by social pressure and the anti-smoking campaign.

Just because you change the system doesn’t mean you fix the problem.

This is why certain change initiatives will have significant hurdles if they are not addressed in a multi-layer way. For example, the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper asserts it “will provide farmers with knowledge and materials on cooperatives, collective bargaining and innovative business models. … $13.8 million will be provided to Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) to work with other Research and Development Corporation’s (RDCs) to develop and deliver training and materials.” (http://agwhitepaper.agriculture.gov.au/, p.31)

Offering farmers skills on how to run cooperatives is not enough to affect a constructive change. A multi-layer approach is required: address behaviour (the skills training to be offered by RIRDC), change in the system (supportive legislation and infrastructure development), and most importantly: addressing the wordviews and metalanguage of farmers and the whole supply chain that this is the new way of doing business. It’s big ask to shift from the fiercely independent, Aussie battler farmer identity to the cooperative, collaborative, negotiation-savvy corporate farmer. This is where the real work is needed.


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