Change Will Be Successful If You Understand Change Is A Choice

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Jun 10, 2016

On the most basic level, change is a choice. Many leaders don’t see it that way. They declare employees must follow the system, as doing so is their job. Technically correct, but these leaders fundamentally miss the heart of the matter: Each person is free to choose how he or she uses the system.

To effectively manage an organizational change, it’s critical to understand and accept that people have choices and free will. Because people are free to choose from a broad range of possibilities, a project will only succeed if the choices you need them to make turn out to be the ones they want to make.

Many organizations operate from a top-down or rigid hierarchical approach. The risk is that people may comply with what they are ordered to do, but they may (and most likely will) find ways to resist and even sabotage the efforts if they don’t fully buy in as co-owner of the choice. Compliance is one thing, but acceptance is entirely different.

Choices are about frames

Think about the choices that you and the people in your organization have. It’s important to recognize that you typically see or are aware of only a subset of all the possible choices you have. If you constantly had to choose among seemingly endless paths, you’d either go crazy or go nowhere at all.

People have developed the ability to hold a subset of the total possible choices apart from the rest, essentially putting them in a frame of their own. Think of this like framing the picture you want to take in the screen of your smartphone. The entire scene around you still exists, but the subject of your attention is limited to that small area of focus.

Frames are really nothing more than a set of criteria that form a filter. They eliminate the choices that don’t fit in your current worldview or mindset so that you have a manageable set. The filters that make up frames are powerful. If something is outside your current frame, it is difficult to see, harder to understand, and nearly impossible to accept.

Consider what frames are at play as you execute change initiatives — but also remember that your own frames might be limiting your ability to see the whole picture.

To begin to understand the frames that are dominant in your workforce, examine the clues in the language people use. For example, if the language of your team is rich with such phrases as “I will,” “I did,” “I think,” and “I want,” that suggests a strong self-interest frame. And if self-interest is driving the frame that means any choices involving self-sacrifice for a greater good are probably going to fall outside the frame.

Changing the frame

Chances are there are some powerful frames already in place, and they threaten to work against you and the success of your project. Some of these frames are shaped by events of the past. After all, no organization is perfect — things are tried and abandoned, leadership changes bring different approaches and philosophies, and market and economic changes force difficult decisions.

Each of these experiences has likely left its mark on the people of your organization. They’re holding some frames regarding the organization. For example, does leadership follow through on promises? Do leaders care about them? Is this new change just another initiative in a long line of abandoned flavors of the day?

In order to succeed, you must change the frame, but to do that you must first understand what frames are in place organizationally. You’ll typically do this through an organizational readiness assessment. The results will determine where your organizational frames are, and will help you make decisions regarding how to reach through the messages of those frames, and expand or add to them.

Emotions are powerful drivers

Although the logic of the project or initiative may be flawless, with a sound business case and great potential for significant value to the organization, logic is only part of what forms peoples’ frames. The most powerful drivers for their choices are such emotions as fear and desire as well as experience — “I touched that once and got burned, so I will not do that again.”

As you gain a sense of the frames at play in your organization and prepare to reach through and beyond them, make sure you’re including every approach. When determining your messaging, ask yourself if your message reaches the head (the reasoning, logical pathway), the heart (the passionate, emotional pathway), or the hands (the determinant or active pathway). To be effective, you’ll have to address all three.

Much research has focused on what motivates people to make choices and take action (or not). One of the most widely regarded and foundational works on this topic was proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. In this work, Maslow sets forth a model for understanding the path of human needs that underpin (and form the most basic of frames for) development, motivation, and choice. Keep these needs in mind as you consider the frames and choices of the people in your organization.

Choosing to change

It should be clear by now that change is complicated. It’s broad and obvious (such as, “We have a new system,” or “We’re adopting a new reporting structure,” or “We’ve acquired a new company”). At the same time, it’s also granular and personal: “How will my job change?”; “Is this something I want to be part of?” or; “I am excited about new opportunities.”

It really boils down to one simple fact — in order for change to be effective, people must choose to change. They can’t be forced. They can’t be threatened. A heavy-handed approach to change will result in compliance at best, while at worst it can lead to disengagement, resistance, and at times subversion of the project or initiative.

The central mission, therefore, is to understand where the organization is in terms of experience, beliefs, and frames, and then to create the vision, plan, activities, and inclusion necessary so that people choose to participate. You must help them see the full range of choices, and then help them understand why selecting the choice that benefits your project is the best alternative.