Don’t waste too much time trying to get people to believe in change. Sacrilege, I know. Let me explain.

Recently, I spent time with a team that’s adjusting to a pretty big change.  They’ve implemented a new structure and some members are having a hard time swallowing it.  Why: because the new structure involves a matrix and matrix management is hard. Where once, a simple instruction could get the wheels in motion; now the delicate art of influence will take the place of the strong arm of control.  That’s a big change.

Some would argue that the team leader needs to spend time convincing the team members of the benefit of the new structure: That an intensive process of creating buy-in is required.  I think the leader could tell them until he’s blue in the face (or until the cows come home, or six ways to Sunday) and it still wouldn’t change their minds.  That’s because we are emotional creatures, not rational ones.  We decide with our gut and rationalize with our minds. The change doesn’t feel good, so their brains are looking only for evidence of why it won’t work. They aren’t interested in evidence that it just might.

It can be too much to ask people to believe in a change, and frankly, complete buy-in isn’t necessary.  What is necessary is that everyone behaves the change.  Here’s the other side of the brain equation: we infer what we believe from what we do. There is significant evidence from psychology and neuroscience research that our brains catch us behaving in a certain way and then create a story about what we believe that makes sense based on our actions (e.g., cognitive dissonance).  Behavior can come before belief.

Don’t wait for people to believe in change.  Just hold them accountable for behaving it.

So instead of spending time convincing, spend time focused on how each member of your team can support the success of the change. Don’t tell them what to think, tell them what they can do.

“I need you to talk to the sales force about the benefits of this change.  Here are some speaking notes. Can you take this message to your team?”

“I need you to share what you know about the mid-west market because Cynthia will need that to be successful in her new role.”  

“How will you help Benjamin think through his marketing strategy for your part of the business?”

My six year old doesn’t care whether I believe in the Tooth Fairy or not.  What matters to her is that every precious little chomper that falls out of her mouths gets tucked in a little tooth-shaped pouch and placed under her pillow.  My behavior is what matters.

If you’re struggling with a change on your team, start by asking what it would look like if you did believe in the change.  How can you increase the likelihood this will work instead of increasingly the likelihood that it will fail? Then don’t wait until you believe it, just start behaving it.  And in one of the most fascinating examples of the complexity of our human brains, once you are doing it, you will start to believe in it.

If you are the team leader, hold your team accountable for their behavior, but be patient with their beliefs.

(Post script: If you aren’t interested in trying or if you have sincerely tried to embrace the change and you really can’t stomach it, then it’s time to find a new team. There is no excuse for staying on a team where you’re only going to sabotage success.)

Further Reading

Exercise: Exposing reactions to change

What to say to someone resisting change

After the Offsite: How do We Sustain Positive Changes back in the Real World?

8 Responses to Dealing with a change that’s hard to swallow

  1. Bob

    This is a very interesting take on change!

    It makes sense though. It’s like weight loss, learning to play guitar, or any other learned skill. Kind of “fake it till you make it”.

    I wonder though, how long you can force behavior like that before the results start to play a bigger part in the decision to keep “faking” it.

    Thanks for this article! Really got me thinking this morning!

  2. Hi Bob, thanks so much for visiting the blog and for your comments. The strategy i”m advocating for is really only to get past the initial immobilization when implementing a change. It was inspired by a team leader who really wanted his team to believe in the change he was asking them to make. I told him to settle for them behaving it! Your point is a good one. If you honestly work to make the plan a success and it ultimately isn’t, then evidence has to take precedence. The blog speaks more to the importance of getting unstuck and getting moving. If, after a while, it’s clear that you went the wrong direction, then it’s time to course correct. You make a great point and a good addition to the blog. Thanks.

  3. Brian Wellman

    Some really interesting points – including from Bob. I like the concept of being explicit where people can help make the change successful.

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