“I just don’t understand it.  They won’t do anything to move forward with the change.”  It’s a familiar lament by change managers who are trying to help organizations reach their potential.  We’ve all encountered people that seem stuck or frozen, and too often we overlook the obvious problem, because it’s not obvious to us.


Fear is a powerful motivator.  It can drive people to amazing efforts and accomplishing the seemingly impossible.  However, as a motivator, fear is dangerous.  Like a pressure vessel, you never know how it will explode in unanticipated ways.  Instead of a pressure to move forward, the person explodes – or freezes.

The unfortunate reality about fear as a motivator is that it is unpredictable.  Sometimes it will drive to the right conclusions, but too often it leads somewhere else – including nowhere.  We’ve all seen possums on the road that are no longer playing dead.  We’ve seen deer that have frozen as the car headlights sweep across the road and on to them.  Because fear is so unpredictable, few people use it to motivate people any longer.  However, there’s more to fear than the fear that’s an attempt to motivate.

Deepest Fears

Our deepest fears are not of heights, spiders, bats, or any of the first thoughts that we may have.  Our deepest fears are unspoken.  They’re our fear of rejection, ostracism, and feeling unimportant, unworthy, or impotent.  When we’re making changes in our organizations, we necessarily are creating disruption and risk to everyone’s security.  They may not feel competent and safe in their current situation, but they’ll feel less safe when there is change and the unknown.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense.  Rejection and ejection from the community was often a death sentence.  If we’re unimportant, if we don’t contribute to our community, and our family we can be replaced, removed, and forgotten.  We’ve learned that these fears aren’t the kinds of insecurities that you share with others.


The first problem with anything that we keep secret is that no one else can help us with it.  No one can reassure you that you’re valuable – just because you’re a member of the human race, if for no other reason.  No one can remind you of the resources and support you have if something does happen in your job.  There’s no way that anyone can reassure you that your insecurities, though natural, aren’t grounded in reality.

The result is that often people become more secretive about their insecurities, and they’re more focused on the threats that exist that may mean their insecurities will become truth.  More and more energy becomes consumed, feeding the fear monster so much energy that there’s nothing left for anything else.


From the outside, the lack of change looks like being frozen.  On the inside, it’s a battle royale, as the ego defends itself from the slings and arrows of insecurity.  Even if you’re unable to accept that the battle is going on and this is the core dynamic that causes people to freeze, you should acknowledge that people freeze when they encounter fear, whether internally or externally generated.

If you want to get people to change and they seem stuck or frozen, a good way to figure out what is keeping them stuck is to ask what fears they’re hiding.  Often these internal fears are undiscussable, and because they’re undiscussable, they’re difficult to address.

It’s no secret.  It’s not complicated.  And still, it’s not done consistently.  The data shows that even in acute care settings, professionals don’t wash their hands like they should.  Depending on where you live, the professionals that you trust with your health may only wash their hands one in five times that they should.  They’ve been told.  They’ve been lectured.  They’ve been threatened.  Despite this, they’re still not washing their hands when they should.

They’re not stupid.  They’re not uneducated.  But they’re not motivated.  They don’t see how it matters, and it shows.

The Command

One of the most annoying things about many infection control professionals is that they believe they can just command others to do something, and it will happen – even if they won’t do it themselves.  Tell others to wash their hands, but don’t always do it yourself.  The command should be enough – particularly when backed up with a threat of being fired – but it isn’t.

The CDC, National Institutes of Health, and World Health Organization have launched countless research projects, trials, and programs designed to improve handwashing.  Largely, these programs have been a moderate success in the short term and a colossal failure in the long term.  Many of the interventions create a short-term change in the handwashing rate but ultimately fail to make a permanent change in the amount of handwashing in the organization.

One may argue that they don’t believe in the consequences or that the consequences aren’t swift enough.  But what happens when you consider the case of seat belts?

Seat Belts

It’s 1964, and the prevailing thinking of the auto industry is that accidents are caused by idiots behind the wheel.  Ralph Nader writes Unsafe at Any Speed and works to shift the perception.  The result is more robust safety features in cars and the introduction of the seatbelt.  Fifty years later, we are still struggling to get people to wear them.

It’s an impressive number when taken out of context.  90.7% adoption.  That’s the percentage of miles driven where a seatbelt is used.  The problem is that this number is plateauing.  It doesn’t appear we’ll get much higher than this, because everyone knows about seatbelts, and they’ve formed their own opinions about whether they’ll be using them or not – regardless of the consequences.

The Consequences

Beyond the threat of death that the crash test dummies drilled into our collective consciousness, in the 1980s as a part of the public safety campaign, there’s the threat of getting a civil infraction – a ticket – if you’re not wearing your seatbelt.  In 49 of the 50 states in the United States, you can be written a ticket if you’re failing to wear your seatbelt.  The 50th state has the ominous state motto of “Live Free or Die.”

The consequences can’t be higher than your death or the death of someone you love.  They can’t be more tangible, real, and vivid than the consequences of driving without a seatbelt.  Despite this, there’s not 100% compliance.  If it’s really just as simple as telling people what to do, why can’t we get people to do what we want them to do?

The Solution

The solution to accomplish change is to help people understand why they want to do the behavior and then build supporting systems around them to encourage the right behavior.  Built in seatbelt warnings in cars were effective for those who didn’t remember to fasten their seatbelt and simultaneously emboldened others to resist people telling them what to do.

If we want to get people to change, we have to help them come to the idea that they want to comply –rather than they feel like they must comply.

I was never very good at carnival games.  I’d throw a dart to pop a balloon and end up skewering a goldfish in the next booth over.  However, I was always intrigued by the bowling ball game.  It required just enough energy to get over the hill, but not so much that the ball would come back to you.  It was a delicate balance between too much and too little.  It’s like navigating the change productivity dip.

The Productivity Dip

Every change manager knows that when you make a change from something old to something new, there is always a productivity dip.  The old way was automatic, natural, and routine.  The new method is different, awkward, and forced.  It takes time for the brain to adapt to the new way of doing things.  During that time, you can expect that everyone will be a little less productive.

Both the degree of productivity dip and the length of the dip vary with the change and the preparation that is done to minimize the impact, but it’s always there – and there are two ways to get stuck there.

The Wheels Fly Off the Cart

When I was young, I’d play with slot cars.  The cars would follow a groove on the track, and as the driver, you’d control the speed with a trigger in your hand.  You couldn’t just hold the trigger at full throttle, because the car would fly off the track during tight turns – and crash into the wall.  This is the first place that I learned that, if you went too fast, things would fly apart.  I learned the lesson again a few times – including once or twice in a real car, never knowing there was a problem until it was a bit too late.

Some changes can be managed this way.  Too much pressure.  Too much change.  Too few constraints.  The result has never been good, and in more than a few cases, it’s led to what I have often described as “explosive growth leads to explosion.”  Going too fast without enough control (or influence) has the tendency to end badly.  However, there’s an opposite problem: not going fast enough.

Failure to Thrive

In babies, there’s a problem called “failure to thrive.”  It’s when the baby just doesn’t gain weight like they should.  They’re not getting enough calories to grow at the normal rate.  It’s often a signal that the baby isn’t getting enough nutrition either because of insufficient feedings or because there’s a problem preventing digestion and absorption of their food.  If the situation is left unaddressed, the baby won’t grow into a normal adult.  They’ll face several developmental problems, the least problematic of which is a smaller size.

Our change initiatives can face the same fate if they don’t get enough energy to get them kicked off and over the proverbial hump that the productivity dip represents.  We know that people don’t evaluate events on their totality.  They evaluate them on their peak and on their ends.  (See Change Anything.)  If you never have enough energy to get past the productivity dip, the last experience of change is a failure – and you begin to expect it.

Just Enough

The trick to the carnival game and to the process of mastering the change curve is to go fast enough to get past the productivity dip without crashing into the wall on the other side and sending the bowling ball careening back at you.  The good news about change efforts is that you can adjust the amount of energy after you start, to increase it if necessary or apply the brakes if it feels like you’re getting out of control.

It’s 1968, and Fredrick Herzberg has the snarkiest of titles in the prestigious Harvard Business Review (HBR).  His article, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” would go on to become one of the most requested reprints from HBR.  Behind the snarky title is research into what motivates people.  What causes them to stay with the organization, and what prevents them from leaving – and why are they different?


The first category of motivation that Herzberg covered were hygiene items.  Without enough of these, people will leave.  If you don’t pay people a livable wage, they’ll find someone who can.  Each of the factors that Herzberg considered had some hygiene aspects to them.  However, the interesting discovery is that adding beyond the amount necessary to be “okay” didn’t motivate people more.  As Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow, people are marginally less motivated by the second dollar than the first until there’s no appreciable change in motivation.

It’s not just money.  There are other factors, like the company’s policy and administration, that must be good enough, but it’s not like these factors will compel people to be more likely to stay.


The motivators are in an entirely different class.  While there may not be much in the way of these factors required to help people stay on the job, their continued satisfaction – and performance – was driven by things like achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, and advancement.  Company policy and administration wasn’t on the list.

This has important implications for how you motivate people towards changes.  You can’t use things like supervision, relationship with supervisor, work conditions, or salary to motivate people to change.  You’ve got to find the things that top Herzberg’s list.

We Need Stinking Badges

Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre spoke the line, “We don’t need no stinking badges.”  With respect to Mr. Bogart, we do.  We need badges.  A few years ago, learning and development professionals discovered gamification and started putting badges into every training they did.  The world caught on, and there now seems to be a badge for everything.  From a social psychology point of view, this is a good thing – and it doesn’t hurt with Rogers’ perspective on adoption either.  (See Diffusion of Innovations.)

Degenerates into Work

It was Peter Drucker who said, “All good strategy eventually degenerates into work.”  At the end of the day, the work that you’re asking people to do – the work after the change – must be enjoyable at some level or they won’t be happy doing it.

Responsibility, Advancement, and Growth

Our egos are constantly making a mess of things.  We consistently rate ourselves as better than we are.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So.)  A way that we combat this is to receive more responsibility – even without additional pay, more advancement, and opportunities for growth.  These motivators beg the questions of how will the people who are changing feel more responsibility, that their careers have advanced, or feel that they have a greater opportunity for growth?  If there’s no answer, then you’re probably not motivating them.

Accomplishing Change

If you want to accomplish change, you may find that the answers exist in a 50 year old text that talks about how to motivate employees – one more time.

Authority makes it easier.  It’s easier to get things done when you can just tell others to do it.  Of course, few people can do that.  Few people can really order others to do anything without their eventual rebellion.  If you can’t order people to change, you’ll be like most of the rest of us as we try to influence others – with or without authority.

Influence Without Authority

My first highlight in the book Influence Without Authority is, “Nobody has ever had enough authority – they never have and they never will.”  In short, all of us work without sufficient authority.  That means that we must find other ways of accomplishing our goals.

Gandhi was a powerful man to be sure, but his power didn’t rest in his authority.  It rested in his determination and his ability to organize non-violent protests, which led to real and lasting change – freedom from British rule.  It was Margaret Mead who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  You don’t need authority to accomplish change, you need determination.  You need what Jim Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox in Good to Great – unwavering faith and the ability to continue to listen.

If you’re in an environment where you have no authority and you believe that you can’t accomplish change, you have the ability to look for influence instead of authority.  With influence, you have the opportunity to develop a small, committed group that can indeed change the world – or at least change your organization.

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Albert Hirschman wrote Exit, Voice, and Loyalty in 1970 speaking about how consumers could respond to deteriorating quality in the goods they were purchasing.  Later, he commented that these options – and a fourth – could be used in any situation.  You can exit the situation (leave your job), voice your concerns (complain), or remain loyal (persist).  The fourth option is neglect.  You could neglect your duties or your passions.  If you neglect your duties, you may be fired; if you neglect your passions, you may find yourself depressed.

Deciding which strategy you should employ is a personal decision based on your beliefs and experiences.  Great leaders often place the first three options on the table.  They exercise their voice, offer to exit, and remain loyal to the cause if not the situation.  Nelson Mandela could have expressed his anger for his previous imprisonment, but he chose to close his remarks at his next trial with, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Hopefully, you won’t have to offer to die.  There are, however, times when there are no-win situations at organizations, where your only option is to exit.  Before you go there, try your voice and see if there’s a way that you can still affect change without authority.

We’re taught to fight resistance.  If the nut won’t turn, apply more energy.  Don’t ask it why it’s resisting or join it in its resistance.  That won’t get you what you want.  However, applying more energy can be the worst thing you can do when you encounter resistance.  It can be the right thing is to stop and listen – and sometimes that means fighting from inside the resistance.

Stubborn Reinforcement

In my post Why People Don’t Resist Change, I explained what causes resistance to raise its ugly head and what to do if you wanted to prevent it from getting started in the first place.  However, what if you’ve already got stubborn users who are resisting your change?  What do you do now?  The answer comes in the form of motivational interviewing.  Instead of pushing people to change, you offer to join them in their space.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing is a book that is often used in addiction recovery.  It teaches an approach that suspends judgement and treats everyone with Carl Rogers’ “unconditional positive regard.”  Rather than confronting addicts with their bad behavior, the counselor works on building rapport.  They’re allowed to share their own perspectives on what has brought them to this point in their life.  The approach is like The Ethnographic Interview, where you’re just trying to learn their perspectives, their language, and their solutions.  Counselors are coached to focus people on a tangible change that can make things better, evoking the passion for the change, and finally planning for success.

The step that most people skip is the part where you enter the world of the person who is resisting to really understand their situation, their values, and their perspectives.  If you skip this step, then nothing else that you can do will be effective.  Too many people are afraid to question their beliefs, values, and perspectives.  They’re afraid that if they visit the resistance, they’ll get stuck in it.

Joining the Resistance

Cultural immersion programs are designed to help people engage with the real life of other cultures.  Rather than visiting the sites, they visit the lives of the people as they go about their daily business.  When it comes to the resistance, the best way of understanding is to join the resistance and experience it from the inside.  That isn’t to say that you must take your place in a protest, but you’ve got to be able to hear the concerns in a way that makes you feel like one of them.

It is only as a member of the resistance that you can ask the questions that provoke thought rather than fear, frustration, and anger.  Instead of questioning the very bedrock of their values and perspectives, you can unravel an edge that allows visibility for different perspectives.

Teachable Moments

If you’re not willing to stand with someone where they are, you’ll not be with them when they arrive at a moment when they can learn.  We’ve all had conversations with others where it seemed like they would never listen or learn.  However, that same person, when caught at the right time and in the right environment, can learn instantly.  Those moments can immeasurably change the future, but you cannot predict when or how they’ll come.

If you want to eliminate what you feel is resistance, the best way to do that is to join them and fight in the resistance instead of from the outside.

We say we want change, but why can’t we achieve it?  Sometimes, what we want and what we believe are in conflict.  Even if we can’t articulate what we believe, it can stop us from achieving the change we desire.

Deserts and Scales

Each year, there are many New Year’s resolutions made, and many of those have to do with losing weight.  Whether we want to look better or we feel like we need to weigh less for our health, we commit to making a change.  Six weeks later, there will be gym memberships that go unused and trips to the store for the super-premium ice cream.  In short, in six weeks, over two-thirds of us will have given up on the idea that we’ll lose weight and resign ourselves to another year of wishing rather than doing.

The problem at the heart of the failure is a conflict in what we want.  Sure, we want intellectually to be skinnier or healthier, but emotionally we’d rather not have to do the work to exercise and instead be able to reach for the ice cream scoop when we’ve had a bad day or a difficult conversation.

The conflict between our stated desire of weight loss and our unstated desire for comfort prevents us from making the change that we say that we want.  Instead of shedding pounds, we scratch our head as we stare at the scale wishing it would show us smaller numbers.  Alas, we’ve lost the battle of the bulge for another day and get started with our workday.


It’s a common refrain as business leaders shuffle into the room.  They were hitting it big, making more money than they ever believed possible.  Before they knew it, they believed they were making more than they should.  The believed that they were making more than they were worth, but now they’d give anything to get back there.

We’ve stumbled into an industry association meeting and everyone there is intelligent and hard working.  Many of them come from companies their grandfather started, and they feel like they’re losing the legacy as the business languishes.  They long for the glory days without realizing that they themselves brought them to an end.

When their brain flipped the switch that said they were making too much money – more money than they deserved to make – they started silently self-sabotaging.  It wasn’t big things.  It was small changes that led them, from one decision to the next, to make slightly poorer decisions and reduce the trajectory of the organization to what was more comfortable.  However, what they didn’t realize is that these compound decisions would cause an over-correction and, in some cases, ruin.

The hidden belief was about how much they should make.  What they’re worth.  In many cases, they could see their hard-working father and grandfather slaving over the business every day and never really being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  Why, then, should a grandson inherit something that he barely has to work at?  It’s subtle.  It’s also self-sabotage to bring the income down into a range that feels comfortable, and it’s something that many small business leaders have faced at one time or another.

Lightening Up

The key to overcoming immunity to change is shining a light on those things that are holding you back.  When you see the factors that lead to poor or conflicting decisions, they lose much of their power.  Knowing that you’re using food to comfort yourself allows you to reframe your goal as comforting.  Knowing that you’re sabotaging yourself and your change initiative allows you to be conscious about the decisions you’re making – and to consciously change your choices so that you can have change success.

Innovation may be the thing that we need to move forward.  It may be the thing that every organization wants most, but it’s also the most misunderstood concept in all of business.  We believe innovation to be ideas – but it’s not the birth of an idea, it’s the adolescence.


Everyone has ideas.  You’ll have hundreds of them while reading this post.  Some will be mundane.  Some will be gentle nudges to yourself not to forget to pick up milk today or call about that appointment you keep meaning to reschedule.  Some may be profound, like the way to end world hunger.  It’s these profound ideas that can change the world – but only if they can be catapulted out of our consciousness into the cold hard world.

It’s ideas that people seek to capture in knowledge management and suggestion boxes.  Organization sets rewards and bounties for the behaviors that lead to new ideas being captured in paper or electronic form.  However, these initiatives are a waste of time.  They allow you to collect a quite massive pile of rubbish.  It’s the kind of thing that innovation is designed to address.


Innovation is the successful implementation of an idea.  It’s testing and refining it until it’s ready to be adopted by the masses and change the world.  Edward Catmull of Pixar explains that all of their movies suck at first.  (See Creativity, Inc.)  They make some of the best animated movies in the business – and all of their movies suck.  They start out as ideas, and the development process that movies go through at Pixar gradually refines them into the story that we see.

It’s not the idea that’s great.  It’s not the selection process.  It’s the refinement process that distils the idea to its essence.  It removes the impurities that will prevent it from being adopted.  To get to the innovation, an idea must be forged by challenges and questions.

Innovation Adoption

Once the idea has been refined, it must be adopted.  Innovations are the adoption of an idea, so without adoption, it’s really not an innovation.  It’s simply an idea.  However, adoption isn’t as simple as it first seems.  Everett Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations explains that we’ll get knowledge from anyone and attitudes from our peers, but we need to make a personal decision to change.  (See Knowledge-Attitudes-Practices for more.)

Getting to adoption of an idea must first pass the hurdle of refinement and move on to the second state where people become aware of it.  It’s with awareness that it’s possible for people to adopt an idea and convert it to an innovation.  But it takes changing attitudes, and that’s where it becomes an opportunity for the change leader.


Persuading people to change their attitudes and behavior is the heart of what the change manager does.  They enable organizations to reap the benefit of those ideas that have been refined by helping people first change their attitudes towards the idea and ultimately change their behaviors in order to make the change.

Without change leaders, there will be little change.  Like a reaction without a catalyst, it may get there eventually, but over a much longer and inefficient process.  Change leaders are the catalyst that makes innovations happen from the raw materials of ideas and refinement.

We’re all familiar with the form of rule as democracy, however fewer of us are familiar with the term oligocracy, how these two terms dance in organizations, and the implications for implementing changes.

Greek Roots

Both democracy and oligocracy derive from the Greek root-based suffix -cracy, which means power or rule.  Democracy begins with a form of demos – or populace.  Oligocracy begins with the prefix of oligo, which means “a few,” “chief,” or “principal.”  In short, rule by the few.  This is contrasted with dictatorships, where the power of rule is concentrated in a single person.


Most organizations are in some stage of what Fredrick LeLoux describes as Reinventing Organizations.  They’re on the path from fear, power, and command-and-control approaches to collaborative approaches to working with one another.  However, the path isn’t as straight as it first appears.  On the one end, you have dictatorship, and on the other end, it appears that you have democracy – but many would appropriately argue that it becomes anarchy.

Organizations exist to coordinate the effort of individuals into a unified force.  That historically happened through the power and force of a single individual and has gradually been diffusing across the organizational leadership into a cord of multiple strands.  In short, our organizations are becoming more oligocratic.  This is particularly true of partnerships where there is no one partner with complete control regardless of the ownership percentages.


Winston Churchill described democracy as the worst form of government – except for the other forms we’d tried.  In theory, democracy is a great idea, but it’s not without its practical limitations.  Getting everyone on the same page can take a long time – a prohibitively long time.  That’s why the Thomas-Kilmann Mode Instrument doesn’t recommend the middle ground of the assertive and cooperative dimensions – compromising.  Building true consensus can take an infinitely long time.

Imagine for a moment that the United States Congress had to reach consensus for everything they did.  Literally nothing would get done – except for recess.  This is the descent into anarchy.  It’s what happens when nothing can get done, because there’s no power for anyone to encourage others to do what they want.  Congress relies on many behind-closed-door agreements, where one member agrees to support another’s initiatives.  It’s the lubrication that makes the limited democracy of Congress work.

Primus Inter Pares

It’s Latin for “first among equals.”  It’s the way that partnerships navigate the difficult waters of who gets to make the decisions when everyone wants to lead in different directions.  One person is elected to do a role, and the others agree to subject themselves to the decisions of this role.  They thereby distribute decision-making authority between equals to prevent the deadlock and anarchy that can occur when democracy is allowed to run amok.

For your change initiative, the goal should not be to make everyone equal.  The goal should be to ensure that all are treated fairly, and that decision-making authority is appropriately distributed so that decisions can be made.

Like in partnerships, there’s an implicit understanding that if the person elected to the role doesn’t dispatch the role well, they’ll be replaced.  This pressure ensures that the person with the role considers the needs and desires of others while making their decisions.

The goal in your change should be neither democracy nor oligocracy but primus inter pares.

Some change professionals resist the inclusion of personal change approaches in the category of change management, feeling that these approaches are best left to self-help books and personal issues addressed outside of the organization.  However, all change is personal.  It may be that we can’t leave personal change expertise outside of our organizational change simply because, without personal change, there can be no organizational change.

All Change is Personal

When it comes down to it, an organization has no behavior on its own.  Organizational behavior is a result of all the individual behaviors of the people that make up the organization.  While an organization’s structure, rules, values, and processes create a culture that tends to bias behaviors into a consistent and acceptable way, it doesn’t ensure that individual behaviors are what is expected.

Because individuals are free to make their own choices about their behavior, and because organizational behavior is a function of those individual behaviors, we create change in an organization by changing the forces that are influencing behaviors and motivating individuals to make different choices than they made in the past.  It’s when we can get the individual behaviors to change and maintain those changes that we’re able to accomplish sustained organizational change.

Powerful Motivators

Kurt Lewin first spoke about the force fields that push people to and away from various behaviors.  He expected that behavior was a result of these competing forces that would hold people back from making changes or compel people towards them.  With advances in neurology, we know that some forces are created differently than others.  Some of the most powerful forces we are aware of are the result of a synthetic drug hijacking the brain’s own reward systems.  They create an unnatural and profound attraction to the addictions.  While there’s much more to addictions than pharmacology, there are powerful forces at play.

We can learn the most from things that operate at the extremes – like addictions.  Many forget that the Indianapolis 500 race was initially designed as an endurance test – not a race in the same sense that it’s meant today.  What we learn from car racing is transferred back into the automobiles that we all drive.  Similarly, we can learn a great deal about how to motivate behavior change by focusing on those behaviors that are the hardest to change and looking for the successes.

Addictive Change

Helping people overcome addictions is big business – and tragedy when it fails.  People who are addicted are held prisoner by their addictions, unable to choose different behaviors.  While the success rates aren’t great overall, there are techniques and approaches that have been effective, and they’re remarkably similar to the kinds of recommendations that you’d make for organizational change.

For instance, one of the powerful recommendations for recovery is to change the environment around the person to encourage the desirable behaviors.  For the person who is addicted to alcohol, this may be to remove the alcohol from the house.  It may be to avoid the behaviors – like going to bars – that might lead them to want to drink.  In our organizations, we try to change policies and systems to make the old behaviors more difficult.  And similar to the situation with alcohol-addicted persons, we often find that people find creative ways to get around our blockages.

Another powerful environmental approach is to change the community that the person is a part of.  That means changing friends.  It means changing the activities that they enjoy with other people.  In organizations, we try to demonstrate the new behavior and create the appearance that everyone is doing the new behavior.  There’s solid research to show that people will change their behavior if they believe they’re one of the few people who are not showing the desirable behavior.

Personal Learning

The key to leveraging personal change techniques isn’t to replace time-honored organizational change approaches – it’s to augment them with a depth of understanding and new techniques that may lead to better outcomes.  It’s adding depth and character to what we know about change techniques, so we can learn to use them better.