As a leader, you have learned how to manage teams, create a strategic vision, motivate people, and get business results. You know that none of this is easy and takes some trial and error before you find a groove that works for you and for your organization. But what happens when you need to affect change that people are going to be averse to doing. It’s human nature to resist, and it’s up to you to figure out how to get everyone to embrace change.
This is not a new problem, nor is it an easy one to solve. Social scientists have been working on it for the better part of the 20th and now the 21st century. There have been multiple theories and techniques, most of which sound great until they are put in practice. As you well know, humans do not tend to act with rational and predictable behavior when faced with change.
According to a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, there are two persuasive techniques that can work in the ideal setting. Both of them can help leaders get past the “active inertia” that often holds back large change initiatives. Active inertia is defined in the article as the tendency for people and organizations to seek comfort in the old ways of doing things, even (or especially) when the world around them is changing dramatically.
The last part of that statement has never been more accurate than it is in today’s business environment. So let’s take a look at the two persuasive techniques.
The idea behind the foot-in-the-door technique is to start small. By asking for a change that is manageable. Once they have completed the request, they are more comfortable with the change and invested in the process. They are then far more open to the next request.
According to the article, “Stanford professors Jonathan L. Freedman and Scott C. Fraser noted that in most societies and organizations, “it is somewhat difficult to refuse a reasonable request,” so starting small makes it hard for people to say no. But then, “once someone has agreed to take any action, no matter how small,” they “tend to feel more involved” in the situation, and are thus more likely to agree to even bigger actions.”
In effect, getting your foot in the door is a low pressure way to encourage employees to try something new without them feeling like they must do it. Think of it like the saying, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. This technique is asking them to take the first step. And as they see the results of the first step, they are willing to take a second step.
The “Door-in-the-Face” Technique
The other technique is at the other end of the spectrum. Ask people to do something that is far larger than what you actually want them to do. Research has shown that when the first request is extreme, a second, more tamer request is far more likely to be agreed to.
This is not to suggest that the door-in-the-face technique should be a go-to approach for change management initiatives. “Rather, the idea is that by setting aspirations for performance and change that seem extreme or unreasonable, especially in organizations that suffer from active inertia, you can persuade people to consider innovations they would not have considered otherwise. Wharton professor Jerry Wind calls this “the power of impossible thinking” — and it can make big change a lot more possible.” Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi used this type of motivational technique. His rationale for setting lofty goals is, “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
If you’re struggling with change management and need to create a culture where you can encourage employees to embrace change, send us a note.