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Leading Change: Motivate the Elephant
by Tom Goodman
May 13, 2010

If you're leading, you're leading change.  Your leadership may involve changing the behavior of your teen or changing the performance of your staff.  Your leadership may involve changing your own habits or changing the habits of your volunteers at church.

How can we lead change?  In their new book, Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath write that successful changes require the leader to focus on three things at once: the mind, the heart, and the situation.  Imagine your organization, your teens, or your own life like an elephant ride.  Your job is to...

  1. Direct the Rider
  2. Motivate the Elephant
  3. Shape the Path

I'm taking three weeks of LeaderLines to unpack the Heath brothers' advice on accomplishing these three things.  Last week we examined how to "Direct the Rider."  But when we want to make a switch in our kids, our church, our business, or ourselves, we have to pay attention to another force.  If the "Rider" represents the rational side of a person, the "Elephant" represents the feelings.  While the Rider needs to know why and how to make the change, the Elephant has to feel that it's capable of conquering the change.  There are three things that you, the leader, can do to make this happen.

First, find the feeling.  "Because of the uncertainty that change brings," the Heath brothers write, "the Elephant is reluctant to move, and analytical arguments will not overcome that reluctance."  Why can't we simply think our way into new behavior?  Partly because of what psychologists call "positive illusions."  Studies have found that most people have a too-high view of their capabilities and a too-low view of the risks they face.  Positive illusions are why an employee doesn't think he needs your advice about improving his interpersonal skills.  Positive illusions are why a teenager doesn't think her text messaging while driving is likely to result in a wreck.  Positive illusions are why a church can't see that what once worked to connect with the surrounding community no longer works.  To break through positive illusions, many leaders try to touch on our fears.  (Here's what your lungs will look like if you smoke; our company is going to tank unless you start doing things differently.)  The Heath brothers say, however, that more lasting change comes from tapping into our hopes and aspirations.

Second, shrink the change.  When a local car wash ran a promotion campaign featuring loyalty cards, they experimented.  One set of customers got a card with the promise that the company would stamp their card on every return visit, and the customers would get a free car wash after the eighth stamp.  The other set of customers got the same deal with one small change: their cards required eight stamps, but the customer received the card with 2 stamps already awarded.  The "goal" for both sets of customers was the same, but the second set of customers were far more likely to reach the goal, and far more quickly.  The moral and application of the story...

People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting gate of a shorter one....  A business cliché commands us to 'raise the bar.'  But that's exactly the wrong instinct if you want to motivate a reluctant Elephant.  You need to lower the bar....  The Elephant in us is easily demoralized.  It's easily spooked, easily derailed, and for that reason, it needs reassurance, even for the very first step of the journey.  If you're leading a change effort, you better start looking for those first two stamps to put on your team's cards....  Hope is precious to a change effort.  It's Elephant fuel.

Third, grow your people.  While most of us look for incentives to drive change, we should look instead for how the change taps into their sense of identity.

Identity is going to play a role in nearly every change situation.  Even yours.  When you think about the people whose behavior needs to change, ask yourself whether they would agree with this statement:  'I aspire to be the kind of person who would make this change.'  If their answer is yes, that's an enormous factor in your favor.  If their answer is no, then you'll have to work hard to show them that they should aspire to a different self-image.

I loved the story the brothers told of the principal who turned around a troubled high school.  One thing she did was change the grading system to: A, B, C, and NY.  Not "F" for "Failure," but "NY" for "Not Yet."  It was one way students came to see that their teachers believed they could do better, and they grew to become students who did better.

I admit that, as a preacher, vision-caster, and parent, I've always been more comfortable appealing to someone's Rider than someone's Elephant.  Anytime I've been successful at connecting with the Elephant, it's required some real forethought on my part instead of just coming instinctively.  If we're going to lead change, though, we'll need to reassure the Elephant that the change is possible.  This is done by finding the feeling, shrinking the change, and developing people's personal aspirations.

Next week:  Shape the Path.


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