In for a penny

Changes do not occur spontaneously, even though you as a part of senior management spend column after column explaining why they are necessary. By applying some principles from social psychology, you can affect the behavior in your organization in a credible manner — although it may take a little longer than what an overly optimistic CEO would wish.

As executive level manager, imagine that you have prepared a new strategy together with the executive board. You are about to roll out the strategy in order for the company (and the shareholders) to attain the goal of getting a foothold in the American market. You are, of course, a skilful leader who acknowledges the great importance of communication. But even you can become better, because it is one thing to be able to formulate important strategies and another one entirely to implement the changes. You cannot do that without the support and active communication from your mid-level managers. And that is often harder to get than we think.

We often work with senior executives. We provide them with specific tools for strategic change communication that is based on well-founded research. Research shows that the most important communication channel is the managers and, even more so, the mid-level managers, and that no matter how rational the arguments are, they are not always enough to convince employees of a change that lies well into the future.

Only one out of three succeeds

In the literature on changes, many different succes rates are presented for changes initiated that do not lead to the results the management had planned and hoped for. We find a valid example from 2008, when the international consulting firm McKinsey asked 3,199 managers at executive level about their experiences on the topic. Their reply was that “only one transformation in three succeeds”. An obvious challenge for many executives is that what appears logical to implement on paper is not always so in the real world. This is true even though you have explained the logic of the change and have communicated via all channels; right from the intranet, the staff paper and the internal social network to cascades through the executive hierarchy.

The same old furrow

Especially the last channel, the managers and mid-level managers, is decisive for making the communication work. Several surveys show that the immediate superior is the most important channel for the employees when messages are to be communicated to the organization (it appears among other things from the research performed by Helle Peterson on change communication in Novo Nordisk). As the immediate superior of the employees, the mid-level managers have optimum possibilities of adapting the messages, the degree of detail as well as the speed and the scope of what is necessary to communicate to the employees.

As a c-level manager, you and your colleagues of course know that management is partly defined by the way in which you communicate. But at Napica, we also experience that good executives like yourself are stuck in the same old furrow where the logical arguments and explanations take up disproportionately much space. It is true that the logical arguments are important; they can explain the rationale and the logic behind the change, they can outline the “before and after situation” and they can paint a picture of the behaviour that management would like from the employees. Arguments and explanations are good for ensuring that the employees have understood what the change is all about. And they can possibly also provide an answer to the very critical question of why your organization should implement the change in question. But often this is not enough, because there is a long way from understanding to action. How do you explain that things will work out as you assume when you do not have any firm proof? The change has not yet taken effect, and the sceptics will very quickly manage to point out that “last time, what you feared did not happen at all”. Then it starts becoming a matter of faith rather than formal logic (even though there may of course also be any number of statistically probable reasons behind the decision).

Social influence

Now we have arrived at two other buttons that you can adjust when it comes to change communication. We find them in psychological research on social influence. They are about what it takes for us to agree to the proposals of others and (potentially) change our behaviour — within marketing as well as change communication. One of the most prominent researchers in the field is the American psychologist Robert B. Cialdini. Through his experiments and field studies, he has identified a number of principles that we can apply when we want to influence other people, e.g. colleagues or employees, in a certain direction. We will take a closer look at two of his principles in this article. They are about the so-called commitment and consistency as well as the social proof.

The principle of commitment and consistency says that when we make a choice or decide on something, we experience personal pressure to behave in a way that is consistent with the choices we made earlier. We feel committed to act in accordance with our previous choices and decisions. Also, we feel extra committed to do something if we have said it out loud in front of others, e.g. “now I will start working out more”. In for a penny, in for a pound… Cialdini’s second principle of the social proof is about the fact that we are guided by what people around us do to find out what is the correct behaviour in a given situation. We are inclined, then, to act more or less in the same way as the people around us. This especially applies in situations when it is difficult for us to decide what is the appropriate thing to do, and when we assume that people around us have more knowledge of what is the right thing to do. We know it from situations when we are uncertain of the outcome of the choice we are about to make, and therefore we take our cue from what other people do. If all your colleagues read Cialdini, then you should probably do it as well (they can hardly be wrong…).

A few facts

The psychological principles of Robert Cialdini:

Commitment and consistency

When we make a choice or decide on something, we experience personal pressure to behave in a way that is consistent with the choices we made earlier. We feel committed to act in accordance with our previous choices and decisions.

The social proof

We are guided by what people around us do to find out what is the correct behaviour in a given situation. We are inclined then to act more or less in the same way as the people around us. This applies especially in situations when it is difficult for us to decide the appropriate thing to do and when we assume that people around us have more knowledge of what is the right thing to do.
In his research, Cialdini is concerned with a total of six principles of persuasion. In addition to the two that we are taking a closer look at in this article, he is concerned with reciprocity, liking, authority and scarcity.

Ambassadors: Involvement and credibility

What do the two principles mean in real life when you are to make the necessary changes work in the organisation?

If we take a look at Cialdini’s principle of commitment and consistency it is about involving the right people early on in the process. The right people includes the mid-level managers — your employees’ immediate superiors — who hold an important role of communicating changes to the rest of the organization. Partly to give them the opportunity to have an impact on the process, and partly because participation most likely will result in more responsibility and ownership of the process (commitment). It means that, subsequently, those involved will see a clear connection between their participation and the roll-out. In for a penny, in for a pound (consistency).

The second aspect is about the social proof. The ambassador mindset increasingly gains ground in change management, and this makes incredibly good sense; if your employees have the choice between believing in a remote executive level management and believing in mid-level managers (who they know better and can identify with), they will in many cases choose to believe in mid-level managers. Inevitably, the ambassadors are more credible (at least on paper) because they do not have the same interest in the project as senior executives. Not least in Scandinavian-inspired organisations with a predominantly flat structure and a high degree of autonomy where employees and mid-level managers are expected to be able to argue against a management decision they do not agree to (also if they do not have the authority to change it).

Can’t it be abused?

Now, your inner sceptic might think that it cannot be true that we human beings are so irrational. If we have good reasons we will follow them, won’t we? No, we won’t! This is substantiated by the insights of Cialdini (and the insights of other competent researchers in numerous books). Especially when we are under much pressure, e.g. in the very stressful situations that involve uncertainty as to what the future will bring. But there is, of course, a dilemma since the majority may quite easily be wrong. And a correlation between the penny and the pound does not necessarily make the change as such, e.g. cutbacks, more palatable if you are in line to be sacked.

On the other hand, the choice of whether or not to apply these principles can certainly affect your credibility as an executive. But as in all other situations in which you apply insight from research on behaviour, it is an important principle that you should apply this insight (e.g. the two principles we are discussing here) only to influence the behaviour of people in a predictable direction without robbing them of options. If you deprive them of the option of having an opinion that differs from yours, you manipulate them and that we cannot recommend. Even if for no other reason than because it is rarely good for your credibility in the long term — the moral aspect, we leave to you.

Neither change nor credibility occurs spontaneously

One of the challenges we often hear about is the distance between those who are in charge and all the others “who just follow suit”. In a change context, it is most often executive level management (or their Change Management Department) on the one hand and the rest of the organisation on the other. The winds of change blow hard and the employees cannot keep up the pace.Our concluding point is that it takes time to make people commit themselves to creating the small changes. It is important to involve the right people early on in the process so they can lead the way for the rest of the organization (social proof). Even though you cannot publish sensitive information in consideration of e.g. shareholders, you are allowed to provide information about the situation and the process to the right people. This means that when the change rolls out, the people involved will be able to say: “Well, they did what they said they would do even though it hurts”. Ultimately, these people will become ambassadors that have the courage to defend both decisions and the implementation of a change when facing the rest of the organization.

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