Helping people change

by 25 Jun 2009

In his new book, Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, Edgar Schein, a professor of management at MIT, writes “people don’t mind change; they just don’t want others to change them”. This amusing little sentence is steeped in wisdom and it focuses us on the truth that change doesn’t work when we try to impose it on others. The manager’s initial re quest “Help me change my employees” is al ready on the wrong track; we need to encour age managers to ask a question like “How can I help my employees change?”

This approach gives us a new perspective on change management: employees will change when they want to change and when we give them the right help to do so.

Wanting change

Getting employees to want change is a matter of deploying the classic tools of leadership: vision, rational persuasion and authority.

Managers should start with an emotional appeal to a vision of a different and better way of doing things. The vision does not need to be very specific. Managers need to appeal to the aspirations of employees to provide better service or be the best in the business or be on the leading edge. This is about feeling, not thinking.

Articulating a vision doesn’t come naturally to many managers and HR should be ready to coach them or put them in touch with people who can provide a few words of advice. If “vi sion” sounds too big a word for a given change project, simply tell the manager to “appeal to emotion” or “paint a picture showing how this is a worthy thing to do”.

The next tool to use is rational persuasion – and that’s an approach most managers are comfortable with. But the power of rational per suasion is easily overestimated. It rarely makes people want to change; but it works well when people have already had their interest captured by a vision.

Finally, there is the traditional power of authority. If managers say “We need to hit these targets” then employees may recog nise that they will need to change their be haviour. The key point is that employees recognise managers legitimately have the au thority to set goals, but are not happy if man agers try to tell them how they need to act to achieve those goals.

Authority can be backed up with explicit in centives, but managers shouldn’t fall for the naïve worldview of economists that it is all about incentives. Explicit incentives are the icing on the cake; they are the manager saying “And I’ll take everyone out for pizza if we achieve this.” Explicit incentives are not the main tool for driving change.

Helping people change

When employees want to change their behav iour, the manager is finally in a position to offer help. Schein points out that when things have gone wrong in terms of him offering help: “In almost every case what I said was unsolicited, too general, judgmental or related to some goal of mine rather than what the other person was trying to do.”

If we make the upfront effort to turn employ ees into clients asking us for help, we avoid most of these pitfalls. Employees who want to change will pay attention to specifics and will work to apply well-designed training.

Successful change revolves around help ing people who want to change, not around imposing change from above.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and commentary on human-capital management dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com