A few weeks ago, one of my girlfriends stood in my living room, venting about her company's launch of a new wellness initiative. The business apparently had decided to give a dramatic makeover to the cafeteria, removing "unhealthy" options (e.g., swapping fried for grilled). This included removing pop vending machines and bringing in some outside vendors.

The move wasn't surprising, given that the business in question is a health company, and that millennials in particular consider health and fitness to be big priorities. Plus, they've got math on their side--healthy employees are more productive and cost less in terms of absenteeism, accommodations and insurance.

But the workers, who were used to specific fare, didn't buy as expected. They either went out for lunch or skipped eating altogether. And with choices now more limited, the company neglected to consider factors outside of food preparation, such as sodium and sugar content. My friend, a diabetic, couldn't eat most of the offerings. And prices, which the company had promised would be budget friendly, weren't so great, either.

The company's situation stands as a perfect example of how not to implement a new initiative or program. Here's how they could have done better, and what you should do when your faced with bringing change to the table yourself.

1. Go gradually.

 

Part of the reason bad habits are hard to shake cold turkey is that behaviors get tied to the reward system in the brain. If something doesn't give you the dopamine boost you're expecting, then you're not going to be as motivated to do it, and you'll walk away. And some habits can involve substances that are physically difficult to break from in other ways, as anyone who's felt a caffeine withdrawal headache knows.

Familiarity also has a psychological comfort to it, meaning that too much change all at once can create anxiety.

And finally, no one likes to be told they have to do something in the first place--it messes with our sense of authority and status, and the perception of being out of control can create stress, too.

Implementing an initiative over time if possible is, to use a familiar analogy, like boiling the frog. It's less of a psychological and physical shock, so people have time to acclimate without feeling overwhelmed. Lay out the entire plan well ahead of time and present a clear schedule for when each step is going to take effect.

2. See the big picture.

My friend's company made some assumptions about what makes food healthy or unhealthy and subsequently failed to take many employees' needs into account. Consciously looking for biases and examining a full breadth of recommendations, research and feedback can give you the larger perspective you need to keep workers safe, respected and happy.

3. Keep your promises.

My friend's business promised that new meal options would be affordable. But in reality, there was no financial benefit to the menu changes, and in fact, many options required more money than before. This kind of situation can feel like a bait-and-switch and is disrespectful.

Deliver on what you said you'd deliver, or you'll make your team feel powerless and erode the precious trust necessary to keep your team strong. If you can't give what was originally promised, be immediately transparent about it, give a clear why, and involve the employees in finding a solution.

4. Give some encouragement.

When there's some kind of positive reward to associate with a change, your brain learns to give more dopamine for that activity--that is, your brain gets trained to prefer the behavior. In my friend's business, the reward might have been a free meal for every x purchased, for example.

But research has shown that monetary or material rewards are less motivating than simple words of affirmation. People want to know they belong, that they have purpose and are doing something worth lauding. So go ahead and offer goodies or cash if you want, but the most important thing is that you personally let every individual know you see and approve of what they're doing.

Quite often, it's not the particular initiative or change that's the problem. It's how you implement it. To get the best results, always work cooperatively and collaborate, and think about how to manage reactions before you start.

Published on: May 15, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.