Change and Emotion

by Krishna on April 9, 2008

At the risk of stating the obvious, every change needs a status quo, because there is no change if there is nothing to change. And every status quo has supporters, without which it would not exist. Supporters may favor the status quo because they benefit from it, or they may approve of it because other options seem risky or costly. Faced with a proposed change, these supporters worry about their existing benefits, their new risks, their potential loss from the change and their status in the new order created by the change.

Even though such concerns are based on self-interest, they are legitimate. Ultimately, change is about the people it affects, positively or negatively. If more stakeholders are adversely affected by the change, then perhaps the proposed change is not an improvement and must be dropped. But assuming that you are honest about your facts and you sincerely believe that the proposed change is beneficial to the community or organization, your challenge is to convince the status quo supporters.

When you propose a change, you are essentially creating a conflict with the supporters and beneficiaries of the status quo. In a purely intellectual debate based on facts and reasons, you could win (at least theoretically) every argument by presenting the facts. But in real life, people seldom evaluate costs and benefits as if the situation were a simple math problem. You must consider the emotional attachments and grievances of the evaluators. So, if you want to convince people of the change, you have to take emotion out of the equation and get people to focus on facts. Here are some ways to accomplish that:

  1. Look forward, not behind: Put forth your change as a better approach for the future, instead of criticizing the status quo. Post-mortems only makes people defensive. Many change leaders mistakenly assume that everyone would oppose a policy when its flaws are pointed out. However, criticism can make many practitioners dig their heels in harder, because change would point out to the rest of the world that their initial judgment was wrong and that they were ignorant of the flaws.

    It takes courage and humility for people to willingly admit that they were wrong. Forcing them to accept their mistakes is humiliating. So why put them in a difficult spot in the first place? Instead, suggest that the older policy may have made sense in the past, but changing circumstances requires a new approach. This tactic offers people a dignified way to support the new policy while silently erasing past mistakes.

  2. Make people feel important: Change often results in real or perceived loss of power and control. People don’t know what their role in the changed environment will be. To avoid this feeling of helplessness, give due importance to all stakeholders. Ask them for feedback. Involve them in the key meetings. Communicate often and regularly. You may not be able to accept everyone’s feedback, but they should feel that you had considered them in your decision making.At the same time, de-emphasize yourself, so that the change you advocate does not come off as a power grab. This is not just important for convincing your opponents, but also to gain the trust of your allies. Give opportunities to both your supporters and detractors to participate in and contribute to the change process. Lead, but also delegate. Try to ensure a fair distribution of the benefits accruing from the change.
  3. Listen and answer criticism: People will put forward different arguments to counter your assertions. Some of these may seem silly or irrelevant to you, but there are important to those people. Listen to their reasons, and understand why they are important to those people. Provide a fact-by-fact counter-argument to those arguments, but take care not to dismiss something high-handedly or insensitively. Sometimes, a criticism is valid and must be acknowledged.For example, suppose you want to move a desktop application to the web. A valid criticism would be that the desktop application is a much richer client and hence more user-friendly. This argument cannot be countered by putting forth a false argument that the web application can provide the same user experience. But it can be countered by pointing out the advantages of the web application that outweighs this particular disadvantage. Acknowledge the costs of the change and your argument will be more honest.
  4. Make it easy, but not simplistic: People are overwhelmed by complexity. So you have to present your change proposal in a way that is easy for people to understand. But people are also afraid of making a mistake. So if they think you are simplifying the question and not paying attention to details, they will think you are hiding something or don’t have a clue. So, you have to balance presentation and content.One commonly used technique is to provide executive or visual summaries of your proposal, with additional (voluminous) research or data (by you and others) made available online. You could have some short meetings that provide high-level information and other longer voluntary meetings for providing additional information with Q&A sessions for those interested in learning more. Use various communication channels (email, blog, memos, etc.) appropriately to cater to information demands from different types of stakeholders.
  5. Get rolling: The larger the change, the more resistance you will encounter. So, sometimes it is better to start implementing a smaller part of the change, than waiting for approval for the whole package. Usually every change will have some incremental change that is non-controversial and perhaps even offers immediate benefits. Start there, show progress and obtain credibility for greater changes.Incremental change can sometimes drive away more passionate supporters who are tired of waiting. Nevertheless, it does serve to calm down people’s fears of failure. It also provides minimal disruption, a key factor for buying the support of people (like middle managers) who are responsible for positive short-term results in their department. Incentives (financial or otherwise) are more powerful in incremental change.

All these steps take negative emotions out of play and introduce positive feelings of respect, importance, confidence, belonging and success, taking you a long way towards acceptance.

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