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Chasing the rainbow: Embracing Organizational Change. Part 1: Learning how to stimulate change


I will start this by laying down an overly blunt statement: we suck at behavioural change. We are really, really bad at it. We are really, really bad as individuals. We are really, really bad as organizations and we are really, really bad as a society.


Throughout my entire life I have been fascinated by people’s desire and ability to change. But also about their lack of action to create the change they desire. That’s why I chose to study in depth what leads people to change, what motivates them, what drives them or what stops them from achieving and maintaining change.


For the last 10 years I have worked in a field in which change takes the most intriguing and challenging forms: the field of addiction recovery. And, although I learned daily how to cut my way through the thicket my client’s journeys of change could be it did not prepared me for facing or accepting my company’s inability to change or adapt when in need.


I must admit I had an idealized notion about how people may change. It went on the lines of, if we have enough reason, means and rationality we would embrace change with open arms.

So I was a little disappointed when I wrote a full report based on risk management strategies meant not only to prevent the collapse but to improve the quality of the treatment centre which I used to manage and the owner, although it has highly praised the report has done nothing with it. Nothing. It landed on a shelf, and eventually it found its way towards the bottom drawers. And from the bottom drawers it found its way into the filing cabinets. And soon after, probably into the shredder.


I actually thought that it could make a difference. Silly me. What happened? The owner failed to mind the gap between thinking that something is a good idea and actually doing it. Soon after, I was informed that the company will go into administration. Through an email. That’s how I found out. The email was saying that we have to close down, refer the remaining clients to different treatment centres, fire most of the staff and restructure the management staff into different new positions within the company in other treatment centres. In one week.


Soon after being one of the people transferred to another treatment centre in a new position I felt like I hit a brick wall. I started to become irritable, anxious, cynical, angry, depressed, doubting my efficiency, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted - it was the beginning of my personal tango with burnout that lasted a little over a year. Inevitability my first thought was “what the hell is wrong with me?” and I tried to push through, without much success, but rather deepening into the hell of burnout.


Eventually I went to do what I do best: research the hell out of it and find solutions. Evidence based, comprehensive and holistic solutions. I wanted to find a way out of it but also, after reading hundreds of similar stories, to help others to prevent and overcome burnout. I wanted to be able to help organizations shifting their focus towards employee wellness in their transition processes. This article is a brief incursion into some of the useful things I learned along the way.


In the first part I will be looking at what motivates people and organizations to change and in the second part I will talk in more detail about how to prevent employee burnout during an organizational change.


In any organization and corporation we are ought to be able to align our behaviors with our vision and with our strategies and plans. It’s a tricky thing though and we are not too good at it. When we look at it, what damnes the efficiency of organizational change is our inability to change behaviours.


This follows a gap between intention and action that we can often encounter at an individual level – how we wish our live to look and how it actually looks and the lack of action we take to bridge that gap.


And looking from a societal point of view: 95% percent of the obese people in USA say that they want to lose weight. Less than 5% of them actually manage to lose at least 10kg over the course of a year. And of those, many of them relapsed the year after. So, as individuals, as a society and as organizations we are really bad at behavioural change.


What do we try do about it?


The main paradigm through which we want to promote and achieve change it is strongly driven by the philosophy of behaviorism: human beings will change their behaviours as a response to an environmental stimuli, be it punishment and/or reward (we can see examples of this from “time out” for “naughty” children to incarceration, and from “ice cream if you do your homework” to the promise of fat year-end stocks-option package to enhance performance).


However, the coercive approach to stimulate change is indifferent to the internal state of people, their mind, their thoughts and their feelings. And using it has proven over and over again inefficient.


So in the 50’s and 60’s the humanistic paradigm took the main stage by promoting the idea that if we want to change people’s behaviors we first need to change the thoughts and feelings preceding the perception about that behavioral change. That made sense. You want to change people’s insides so they will change their outside.


And although it had better results than the behaviouristic approach, there are two problems with this approach though.


The first one is called the back-fire effect and it was described by Professor Brendon Nyhan. What happens is that when your deepest beliefs are challenged by contradictory evidence they tend to strengthen rather than change. This happens because we are addressing the cognitive reasoning but forget to address the emotive reasoning. People don’t believe in things just because they are true of factually proven, but because they construct an emotive perception that strengthen that belief.


We think that if we present well thought solutions backed up by science and logic then people will just say “thank you for letting me benefit from your wisdom, I shall adapt to change immediately”. It does not really happen that way.


And secondly, even when we do manage through charisma or power of persuasion or our ability to influence and inspire others as the great leaders that we are, to convince people to have a change of heart does the behavior follow? Not nearly often enough. Because as we discussed and as we know by now there is a gap between what people want and desire and what they are wanting or able to do.


So we still haven’t won the game of learning how to change people’s behaviour. Not by any stretch of imagination. But it’s not all gloomy. We did start to learn a thing or two. Here are some concepts from social psychology who can actually be helpful when embarking on a journey of change, both on an individual and organizational level:


1. One interesting idea comes from Charles Duhigg, who says in his book Power of habit, that motivation is not your friend. We all think that in order to change our habits we need motivation. But motivation is very fluctuant and depended of the arousal of the sympathetic system. How much excitement we feel about a task or another can change very quickly. And we have close to no control over that. It is also related to the narratives we have, which are also highly susceptible to change. So… sometimes we feel it, sometimes we don't. Habits tend to transcend motivation. So the idea is that once you have the habit, your motivation can fluctuate how much it likes, the habit will not change. This can be tackled by formation of mini-habits or by engaging in 30 days challenges (or any variation of that) that will then make the habit seem so much easier to continue and maintain. From an organizational change point of view, it means that if you define specific habits that need to be changed and you can engage your employees in a change process as being a challenge that they can conquer, your results will improve significantly.


2. A second idea comes from the Nudge theory described by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein aprox. 10 years ago, in 2008. What Nudge tells us is that you can shape human behavior by changing the environment. That’s not super radical or new. But the great thing about it is that you leave them the opportunity to choose, you make it easier for people to embrace change. And you build what is called a choice architecture that will encourage people to partake in their choice making, removing the coercive factor from the equation. When it comes to transitional change, this will involve promoting the positive aspects of the change but also allowing your employees to be part in building the positives of the particular change. This idea it perceived as so valuable that one, it got Thaler a Nobel prize and two, the UK government have created “Nudge teams” responsible for behavioural insight research in the field of public policies. Despite this, it has still not reached deeply into the organizational change management strategies or into organizational behavior world. The change management practitioners are not yet paying enough attention to the benefits of this idea. (Research is continuously indicating the significant improvement that choice architecture has compared to educational programmes into influencing behavioral change).


3. The last idea that I belief it has a strong impact on behavioural change is behavioural specificity. We think about resistance to change in a really weird way. It is a common concept that is widely used throughout the psychology of motivation and change literature. Resistance to change is defined as either being an objection to the rationality of the proposal (it is a bad idea to make that change) or as an emotional response (fear, anger, feeling threaten by the change in some way). And that is a way to narrow spectrum to look at resistance to change. It ignores the fact that often people don’t change not because they don’t think is a good idea or because they don’t want to but because that they have habits to do otherwise. Like codes encryoted in our behavioural patterns that have to be re-written if we want to change. And we don’t think enough in the organizational change management about how can we re-write those codes and change people’s habits. And that’s really the way we want to think about it.


When we talk about culture in an organization we think about the words that come out of the people’s mouth or that are typed in a statement of purpose but that really is just the tip of the iceberg. Because often it is not a lot of correspondence between what people say and the behaviours that actually follow.


On paper, the values, the mission, the vision of organizations look impeccable. How much of that is followed through behaviourally? Assessing culture in an organization is a flourishing business. But is being done just by measuring what comes out of people’s mouth. So trying to change it means to change what comes out of people’s mouth. And that’s why is often highly unsuccessful. But if we look at culture as a collection of habits and rituals, as collection of behaviours from the way we conduct meetings to the way we respond to emails, then we have something tangible and meaningful to work with in the process of change.


When I have seen change fail is generally because people did not took enough time thinking about the behaviours that are ought to be changed or they did not spend enough time helping the users use the systems.

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