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.
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.
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.
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.