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How to Get People to Change

Authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath discuss their new book on change management.
Chip, left, and Dan Heath uncover the truth about why people make poor decisions.
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Forget PowerPoint. If you want to influence employee or customer behavior, charts and data typically won't cut it, say Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the 2007 bestseller Made to Stick and the new Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. In Switch, the Heath brothers explore ways to manage big changes in life and in business. "Change is hard, because we're schizophrenic," says Chip, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. (Dan is a senior fellow at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.) "Part of us may want to change, but part of us has this emotional connection to the way that we've always done things." In researching their new book, the Heaths consulted experts on subjects as diverse as how to diet and how to change society. "Time and again, we found the same principles coming up, whether it was individual change or organizational change or societal change," says Chip. Those principles, he says, involve appealing to both our rational and emotional sides. Inc. senior editor Bobbie Gossage recently spoke with Chip Heath about the book's findings.

What mistakes do leaders make when they are trying to change their organizations?

One of the main mistakes is when leaders come up with a new vision but never translate that broad analytical vision into something people on the frontlines can actually execute. I was talking to an entrepreneur who wanted his employees to have a "mindset of customer service." But if you're an employee, when you hear that, all you hear is buzzword, buzzword, buzzword, jargon, jargon, jargon.

What if you are dealing with some really stubborn people who don't like change?

You can try to find the feeling that's going to make them empathize with customers. For instance, Microsoft had some very stubborn programmers who thought they were writing brilliant software. But six out of 10 customers Microsoft surveyed couldn't figure out how to use the new feature. When they told the programmers this, their response was, "Where did you find six dumb people?" Microsoft brought the programmers into a usability-testing lab and put them behind a two-way mirror. When the programmers watched a real customer struggle with the software they designed, the programmers immediately started thinking about ways of changing it.

Don't try to argue with a stubborn employee. That appeals to the dark side of the analytical parts of ourselves.

What do you mean by the dark side?

Our analytical capacity is wonderful, but we face too many choices. If you give customers in a grocery store an assortment of 24 jams to sample, they're actually less likely to buy any of the jams than if there are only six jams. Very often we paralyze our analytical side by offering it too much to analyze. The same thing happens if you give your employees too many things to think about -- like having a "mindset of customer service." As an employee, there are 45 things I could do that might improve customer service, and I don't have time to do all of those things, so I end up doing none of them.

What about using carrots and sticks?

If you're offering bonuses or hiring and firing a lot of people so that you can find the few special people who can execute your vision -- those are expensive, time-consuming strategies. Very often, by making small changes in the environment, we lead people in the right direction without that expense.

So you should change the environment, not the employee?

One of the most basic mistakes that psychologists have documented is that we tend to blame people and their personalities for problems and ignore situations. One of my students, a director at Nike, thought of herself as a very open manager. She had an open-door policy, but when she asked for feedback, she learned that her staff thought she was a bad communicator.

After talking with her team, she realized the problem was the way her desk was set up. When an employee came in and sat across from her, her computer was right in the middle. She got distracted when e-mails showed up. After she rearranged her office so she would have to turn her chair away from the computer when an employee came in, she immediately got positive feedback. By fixing that environment, she fixed the problem.

You mention in the book that peer pressure is also a powerful motivator.

Social influence is strong. If a third of your employees aren't filling out their expense reports on time, what they may not know is that two-thirds of your employees are. Sometimes just understanding that a crowd of people is moving in a direction makes people uncomfortable enough to change. One of my favorite studies in the book is about a group of researchers who went into hotels that have those "Please reuse your towels" signs. They changed one of the signs to say, "Most people in this hotel reuse their towels at least once during their stay." Immediately, towel reuse rates went up 25 percent, and laundry bills went down.

Does a bad economic climate affect people's ability to change?

We commonly think that fear is a good motivator, but fear works for only a short time. And this recession has gone on for a couple of years in some parts of the country. So when we try to motivate people, we need to find feelings of hope and optimism.

How do you do that?

There's a technique we talk about in the book: looking for the bright spots. When you face a change situation, you're often demoralized and depressed. Instead of focusing on what isn't working, you need to shift people over to thinking, What have we done in the past that has been successful for us?

I was talking to a small-business owner whose firm is a general contractor. He had been killing himself by doing proposals for big government contracts, which the company would often lose. I asked him, "What are the last three times that you got a contract you were excited about?" Turns out they were all projects from referrals, and they tended to be not the bigger projects but projects for small and medium-size cities where relationships mattered more.

At this firm, they were masters of taking people who might not necessarily agree on what the fire station should look like and helping them resolve those conflicts. The firm shifted to focusing on smaller projects where it was in charge of a more complete project and people's skills were better utilized.

It's easy to get demoralized when you lose and you lose and you lose. But when you think about the last time you won and how you can do those kinds of things more often, that gives people a sense of hope and optimism that will motivate their behavior.

IMAGE: Courtesy subject
Last updated: Feb 1, 2010




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