Skip to main content
Riding the Elephant in the Room Organizational Change

Riding the Elephant in the Room

Driving Organizational Change

Riding the Elephant in the Room Organizational Change

Organizational Change

Working on change without believing in it is like waiting for the train on a station without tracks.

Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical leadership at New York Stern School of Business is the author of this striking metaphor. He thinks our brain is like an elephant and its Mahout or rider, the small man sitting just behind the head on top of the big beast with only a little stick or bull-hook to guide his animal.

Looking Towards the Future

The mahout looks towards the future and is capable of reasoning. The elephant follows his emotions and reacts primarily on the stimuli from its environments. The rider represents our analytical, planning side. The rider decides, “I need to go somewhere, here’s the direction I want to go,” and sets off. However, it’s the elephant, our emotional side that is providing the real power. The rider can try to lead the elephant, but in any direct contest of wills the elephant with its six-ton advantage is going to win.

Receive your monthly dose of Brain & Behaviour Insights by email. Full of the latest insights, examples and applications. In addition, you will also receive a discount code for our Crash Course and our best articles.

Organizational Change Management

The rider on top of the elephant can, after training, steer the several thousand kilo grey animal underneath him. Yet, if the elephant refuses to listen or change direction the rider doesn’t stand a chance. In Switch, Dan and Chip Heath use this elephant metaphor why OCM often fails. In a lot of cases change demands immediate sacrifices for a reward that will happen later.

Motivation and Leadership Narratives

Part of achieving change, in either our lives or in organizations, is aligning both sides of the brain by pointing out the direction for the rider and motivating the elephant to undertake the journey. Of course, the path the elephant walks down matters too. High-ranking executives can use leadership narratives to shape that path, the environment, and make the journey easier even when the elephant is less motivated.

Rider Elephant Conflict

The rider–elephant conflict may be a reason not to press too hard on formal levers. It’s not enough for people to intellectually understand that an organization must start moving in a different strategic direction. People need motivation but the typical way of corporate communicating speaks primarily and in a lot of cases almost exclusively to the rider. It builds an intellectual case for OCM and relies on formal authority and logic. A lot of the time the rider fails to lead the elephant long enough to reach its destination.

Organizational Change Alignment

It’s not enough to show intellectually that we need to change and then to decree what those changes will be. If it were, a lot more organizations would succeed in successful OCM and making swift strategic shifts. Formal power is tremendously useful, but if we start by wielding it we probably haven’t aligned the rider and the elephant. And if we rely only on the formal levers of power to lead, we may get too far ahead of people — they probably understand that they must change, but the motivation hasn’t kicked in. So how do you steer your elephant in the right direction?

Catalyzing Organizational Change

Neurofied can help managers catalyze change more effectively by drawing on an enormous body of research from psychologists on how the brain works. Applying psychology and neuroscience can help organizations and teams to better understand their audience, take better decisions, improve conversion optimization, implement organizational change, marketing, and management efforts. If you’re facing change, and who isn’t, please contact us.

If you want to learn more about behavioral insights, you can have a look at our blog page. Also, we recommend you to check out Neurofied Academy, and watch the first chapter of our online course for free! If you are interested in innovation, you can find us on Udemy as well.

About Neurofied

Neurofied is a management consulting and training company specialized in Brain & Behavior. We help teams and organizations design, implement, and optimize their change management, growth strategy, learning & development and much more with insights from behavioral psychology and neuroscience.

Since 2018, we have trained 1500+ professionals and worked with 50+ teams of companies like ABN AMRO, Tesla, Calvin Klein, and Adidas. We are also frequent speakers at universities and conferences.

If you see any opportunities to collaborate, please contact us here.