Behavioral Insights for Change Management Programs
This guest article, written by our partner Francesco Chevallard, explores behavioral insights for change management programs he found useful in his work as a corporate consultant.
Change Management Programs are necessary to keep organizations up-to-date and able to compete in international markets. These programs often fail because of the difficulty of properly engaging employees. Understanding what drives people’s behavior and how to change it should be a key priority for any organizational leader driving change.
How many changes have you seen your organization try, over the years? And how many have actually succeeded? Change is difficult, in all areas of life. So it’s no wonder that changing an organization (which means: making multiple people change their behavior) is even more complicated.
On the value of behavioral insights for change management
In my work as consultant, I’ve witnessed many change initiatives and learnt a few tricks about what works and what doesn’t. Yet I always felt frustrated that I didn’t seem to recognize a clear pattern. That is, until I started studying behavioral science and gained a better understanding of how we human beings think and make decisions. So, in this article I will share with you what I learnt about how behavioral science can help achieve change in organizations. I shared my experience in digital transformation projects in a different article that you can find here: make sure to check that out as well!
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Change Management Programs are about altering the way an organization works and operates. That can mean introducing new work methods, re-arranging teams, fostering cooperation, shifting the organization’s strategic goal; or other. At the core there is always some form of cultural shift, to make the organization work more efficiently and keep up with market competition.
When a leadership team feels that their organization is no longer working efficiently, lacks internal cohesion or has simply gotten a bit “lazy”, that’s the time to shake things up with some Change Management initiative. They often fail though. Unclear goal-setting, faulty planning, too few resources allocated, wrong strategic choices can all contribute to that. Today we focus on a different set of reasons: what behavioral aspects may be behind a failure.
Behavioral insights for change management
You can find a lot of guides out there on how to plan the perfect Change Management Program. Multiple useful models, such as ADKAR or Kotter, have been created and can help you craft your program. Many of these tools and guides mention some of the behavioral hurdles that organizations face: resistance to change (passive or active), misinterpretation of inputs, employee disengagement and so on.
What we want to provide in the rest of this article is a deeper level of understanding of the psychology and science behind all of it. This way, you’ll better grasp what you must contend with and you will be able to choose the right tools for your program.
Biases that affect change management programs
Where do issues with Change Management Programs come from? The concept of “resistance to change” is usually too broad and vague and does not give clear guidelines on how to deal with it. Let’s try to focus instead on what biases are involved in this behavior (and later we’ll see how to deal with those).
First off, a word of caution: as we said, we are focusing here on biases, i.e. those mental mechanisms that influence our decisions without us noticing. Resistance to change can come from rational sources (e.g., power struggles within an organization) or be an emotional response (a most-hated colleague or boss is the main sponsor of the program, and people just can’t look past that). Addressing biases won’t be enough there, you’ll need to get to the root of these behaviors by dealing with the specific rational/emotional factors at play.
Biases can however be particularly dangerous in that individuals are not aware of them, making them very difficult to confront and solve. This is why you should learn how to recognize them, and this article can help you do just that.
Probably the most common bias in a change management initiative is the Status Quo bias: our human default behavior is to keep doing the same thing we’ve always done, and it can be quite hard to convince us that a change is needed. This bias can be especially challenging when you’re trying to have your innovation gain traction and you’re faced with a wall of indifference or even mistrust.
Next come Anchoring and Availability biases. They represent our tendency to base (“anchor”) our decision on some early data, that might not even be that relevant, and to rely too much on immediately available information, without considering all the possible factors at play. These biases can bring people to judge change initiatives based on very partial information or even link them with unrelated events and convince them they won’t be effective or useful, so they shouldn’t bother trying to apply the changes requested.
Confirmation bias, our tendency to consider only the information that validate what we already believe, can compound the effects of Anchoring and Availability by making the initial judgements more “definitive” and reduce our ability to look at something from a different perspective.
Finally, the Bandwagon effect, our habit to follow what other people are doing, can nudge whole divisions towards resistance to change once a certain number of employees in that division are set against your program.
You may not have known these names, but you surely have seen these biases in action in your organization. My colleagues Beirem and Philip have interviewed dozens of executives in many different companies and these problems keep arising whenever a change initiative is brought forward (and they are writing an awesome book about it, which will be out in the coming months so more soon!).
How to confront biases with Behavioral Science
Let’s now shift our attention to how these biases can be addressed.
When it comes to Status Quo, well, the first thing to do is to shatter the illusion that the organization is doing just fine and there is no need to change or room for improvement. That means clearly articulating which issues your company is facing and how your change initiative will solve them: your employees should see the current default situation as a losing one, thus triggering their hostility towards it (this leverages a well-known bias, called Loss Aversion, which you can read more about here). The message should be tailored to the specific audience you’re targeting and contain practical examples whenever possible, so as to make people picture in their minds both what doesn’t work and how things will be in the future.
Anchoring and Availability biases are somehow both more complicated and simpler to deal with, because it’s all about timing: you want to make sure to communicate your changes before your employees form an opinion of it based on negative rumors. The keyword here is therefore: control the narrative. Engage in internal education efforts to explain what is going on, reassure your employees and make them feel like they are part of the change, and not passive recipients. Focus on answering the WIIFM question (What’s In It For Me?) for your employees.
Group meetings, one-on-one sessions with key stakeholders, interactive emails, and newsletters are all effective tools to communicate your changes. Sometimes even discussion forums or intranet messaging platforms can be useful, allowing employees to engage with each other and come to terms with the change by themselves.
If you are faced with negative feedback from your stakeholders, that’s where it’s useful to consider the Confirmation bias and the Bandwagon effect. The first tells you that simply showering opponents of the change with information that your program is actually good won’t do much. You need first to attentively listen to them and get to the root of their opposition, making them voice it out clearly. Once that’s done, it’s easier to address it. Techniques such as the Red-Blue Team intervention or the Four P’s exercise can help you.
If an entire group of employees (perhaps one specific department) seems to oppose it, well then you need to beware of the Bandwagon effect. Convincing one or two random people in a big group won’t be enough, their voice will be silenced when back in the group and they will probably fall back in line with their companions. There are two ways to address this: one is to identify the most influential people within the group and convince them first. The other is to break down the group into smaller chunks and try to convince them separately, following the strategies and using tools outlined before.
Using Behavioral Insights for Change Management
Using behavioral insights for change management program means putting considerations about how we think, operate and make decisions at the core of your program: this way you will be able to bridge the gap between your intentions and the actual implementation of your ideas.
No two organizations are the same and no two change management programs are the same. What we wanted to give you in this article is a basic understanding of the psychological aspects involved in any company’s initiative that wants to alter the way things were previously done.
We have written and published a lot on the psychology of change, including an ongoing YouTube series on evidence-based change interventions.
Neurofied is a brain & behavior agency specialized in training, change programs, and consulting for large organizations. We help a wide variety of teams drive evidence-based, positive, and lasting change in areas like growth mindset, customer journey, diversity & inclusion, and much more. All our services are based on insights from behavioral science and neuroscience.
Since 2018, we have trained 2000+ professionals and worked with 75+ teams of companies like ABN AMRO, Tesla, Calvin Klein, and Adidas. We are also frequent speakers at universities and conferences.
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