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The Secret to Making People Accept Change

If you're trying to change something at your business and failing, the problem probably is your lousy skills as politician. Here's how to improve.

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Innovation is all well and good in the abstract, but when it comes to actually changing things rather than just talking about changing them, people become strangely stubborn.

Whether it’s a new process, a productivity-boosting tech tool or a restructuring of departments, you no doubt thought long and hard about the change you want to make to your business and how it will benefit both your staff and the bottom line. You have your ducks in a row when it come to implementation and all your arguments mustered to beat back any sort of objection from tradition-enamoured team members. But still basically nothing new is catching on. What’s going on?

According to a new article in the latest MIT Sloan Management Review previewed by Leslie Brokaw recently, the problem probably isn’t your meticulous planning or your abnormally uncooperative staff. The problem is probably your skills as a politician.

The article is written by two professors, Ellen R. Auster and Trish Ruebottom, who worked on more than 400 change initiatives. What held up most of them? A soup of human fear and frailty. "Left unattended, skepticism, fear and panic can wreak havoc on any change process," they write before offering a five-step program to up your persuasive powers and bring out your inner Bill Clinton or George Bush and massage away people’s doubts:

  • Step 1: Map the political landscape. Change leaders need to "map the political landscape -; the key external and internal, formal and informal stakeholders who will be affected" Auster and Ruebottom write.

  • Step 2: Identify the key influencers within each stakeholder group. "Influencers are the key individuals who have the resources, skills or social networks needed to win over the hearts and minds of the larger group," write the authors. "It is important to spend time up front identifying these key influencers, listening to their ideas and engaging their participation."

  • Step 3: Assess influencers’ receptiveness to change. Auster and Ruebottom have seen influencers take one of six roles regarding potential changes to the organization: they can become sponsors, promoters, indifferent fence-sitters, cautious fence-sitters, positive skeptics or negative skeptics.

  • Step 4: Mobilize influential sponsors and promoters. Possible action steps include asking them to shape the plan; enlisting them to help lead an early part of the plan; giving them a role with visibility to the C-suite; and allowing job flexibility throughout the change to encourage shared learning.

  • Step 5: Engage influential positive and negative skeptics. Skeptics can be valuable or they can be roadblocks. Working with them early is key.

Check out the complete article if you’re interested in learning more details of the program. But whether or not you use this specific model of pushing for change, the underlying point that good ideas do not necessarily win the day without careful thought being given to the social context and politics of the group into which you hope they’ll spread is a powerful one.

Atul Gawande wrote about the politics behind the dissemination of ideas (or their failure to spread) in the context of medical innovations for the New Yorker recently. When it comes to changing our ideas, he writes, "technology and incentive programs are not enough. ‘Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,’ wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process."

Gawande may be discussing the spread of better childbirth practices or rehydration procedures, but the same could be said of any new initiative in any small business. Being right isn’t enough. You also need the human touch of the persuasive politician to get people to go along.

Have you had trouble with change initiatives?

IMAGE: Shutterstock (modified)
Last updated: Aug 21, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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