Psychology of change

Change management is in need of a transformation through an improved understanding of how humans interpret their environment and choose to act. The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management

Ever made this resolution: “I’m going to keep my email inbox empty.”

Were you successful?

I wasn’t.

Why is change so hard? Because we’re not Econs, a term the authors of Nudge coined to portray the flawed thinking behind how people think. Econs are people who can think like Einstein, store as much memory as IBM’s BigBlue, and exercise the willpower of Gandhi. Unlike Econs, humans err. We’re more like Homer Simpson than Spock.

Whether we’re trying to change our own habits, the habits of a team, or the habits of an organization, to succeed in effecting change we need to tap into the power of the mind. And much of that power resides in understanding and connecting with people’s feelings, emotions, and cognitive biases.

Here are the slides from OpenText’s April Adoption webinar where I look at six things about the brain to be aware of when designing a change or adoption strategy.

1: Our minds are storytelling machines

We don’t just take in the world as is. Like Sherlock Holmes “we all perceive the present world around us, pull personal clues from the welter of ambiguity, and build our  explanatory stories – no matter how improbable the chain of events as we reason backward from effect to cause.”

What did you see in the video? Odds are, like most people, you created a story. About a couple and a bully.  A mother, a child, and a bad guy. A father and a couple.

Our brain takes two animated triangles, an animated circle and a box moving around and spins an elaborate story.

If we get a D, fail to get a hoped for promotion, receive an email about a new corporate initiative, or are introduced to a new technology we automatically spin a story about it. And we base our subsequent decisions that story.  This is why story editing is such an interesting change technique.

2: Frames shape our attitudes and behavior

A frame is a metaphor for a photo frame. A photo frame focuses our attention on a specific aspect of the photo, ignoring everything outside the frame. Ask a three people to take a photo of a garden. Each photo will be different, each will focus in on a different aspect of the garden. One may capture a close up of an interesting flower. Another may catch a bird in flight. Yet another may focus in on a mischievous garden gnome peeking out from a leafy frame. What does each photo tell about photographer?

Politicians (the war on terror), the media (fall of the Saddam’s statue), and advertisers (Diamond Shreddies) are masters at using frames to shape public opinion and behavior. Yet when it comes to organizational change we seldom recognize or leverage this powerful tool.

3: We take mental shortcuts when making decisions

Faced with a cognitively demanding question involving uncertainty such as “Will this person do the job well if hired?” we unconsciously substitute an easier question and answer the easier question instead: “Did this person impress me in the interview?”  Daniel Kahneman calls this tendency to jump to conclusions based on limited evidence WYSIATI (what you see is all there is).

And the measure of success our brain uses to determine whether its a good answer?

Whether it make a good story.

Accuracy entirely optional.

4: We’re not good at knowing what we want and why we do things

Why not? Because we make inaccurate predictions (spin elaborate stories) of the future and rationalize (make up stories about) the past.

We can’t really articulate why we prefer the picture on the left. As a result, because it’s easier to come up with reasons why we might prefer the one on the right, that’s the one we choose when we have to explain ourselves.

We value immediate rewards (and dislike immediate costs) much more than we value future rewards (and dislike future costs). David Laibson says it well “There’s a fundamental tension, in humans and other animals, between seizing available rewards in the present, and being patient for rewards in the future. It’s radically important. People very robustly want instant gratification right now, and want to be patient in the future. If you ask people, ‘Which do you want right now, fruit or chocolate?’ they say, ‘Chocolate!’ But if you ask, ‘Which one a week from now?’ they will say, ‘Fruit.’ Now we want chocolate, cigarettes, and a trashy movie. In the future, we want to eat fruit, to quit smoking, and to watch Bergman films.”

This has a significant implications how we approach requirements gathering, focus groups, and ethnographic research.

5: We stick with what we know

We have a tendency to stick with the status quo. Even though my kids had been bugging me for a couple of years to switch from Internet Explorer, I happily continued to use it. I figured it did what I needed it to do. And the mental effort of switching was greater than the cost of sticking with what I was already comfortable with. Until finally I was prevented from upgrading to IE9 unless I first upgraded to Windows 7. At that point it was easier for me to switch browsers than to upgrade my operating system. Now I use Google Chrome with no issues.

We also attach stories to objects we already own, which increases how much value we attach to those objects. Consider the hottest ticket in the history of Canadian sport.  People who owned tickets to the Olympic gold medal match between Canada and the United States had already attached a story to their ticket… “an experience I will always remember” or “something to tell kids about.”

6: We’re shaped by social ties and our environment 

David Rock suggests that “the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system.” Why? The human brain has mirror neuron systems that allow us to understand actions, intentions, and social meaning of other people’s behaviors and emotions.  We tend to do what those around us are already doing.  To the extent that, according to Daniel Kahneman, “Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefor matters. Expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home.”

Social proof trumps information about harm or consequences. For the teenage boys the game Dead Space 2 is targeted at, the best way to persuade them a video game is cool is to tell them their mom hates it.

Advertisers have been leveraging the power of psychology for years to change minds, build new habits, and encourage new behaviors.  How much more effective could our efforts to effect change and encourage user adoption be if we experimented with insights from behavioral economics, neuroscience, and social psychology and add them to our organizational change toolkit?

Anyone running any experiments?

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    2 Responses to “Psychology of change”

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    1. & that, in a nutshell is why climate change is such a difficult issue to address . Thankfully people also prefer to do good rather than evil. They are also capable of making extraordinarily brave choices for the benefit of those they love. I just hope we can encourage the latter before it is too late

    2. Joyce Hostyn says:

      Hi Harold, here’s an interesting post I just ran across around telling better stories so that people aren’t paralyzed by the issues of climate change… “I’ve learned that when pushing new initiatives, success often lies in how well the entrepreneur, or in my case, the intrapreneur, can tell a story. I’ve seen countless corporate sustainability pitches begin with melting glaciers, sad polar bears, and the ever-present hockey stick curve with the words “IF WE ACT …” When these images come up, the audience’s eyes almost always glaze over. They’re gone and they’re not coming back. I imagine that they’re thinking: ‘How is this relevant for me?’ ‘When are they going to bring lunch in?’ or ‘Even if we implement this idea, how could we possibly make a dent in such an epic problem?’”


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