Engaging the Elephant

In a time of economic challenges, we need a better understanding of how and why people change. Traditional change management initiatives clearly are not enough. The secret to successful change is engaging the elephant.

If you are serious about leading change, you must become an elephant whisperer. You must learn how to engage the elephant.

This is a clear message that emerged from some recent conversations among law firm KM professionals about Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. This book reveals and addresses the business world’s fatal misunderstandings about how change happens. In a workplace (like a law firm) that prizes analytical work, it can be tempting to take an entirely rational approach to change: explain why we need to change and what we must accomplish. Such approach assumes that all of us would act in the desired way if only we understood the issue. However, if that were the case, there would be no more smokers in the world.

What’s the Elephant?

It’s not just a matter of knowledge. (See Change or Die.) The Heath brothers use a metaphor developed by Jonathan Haidt to explain why: in terms of physical mass, the rational, analytical part of the brain is significantly smaller than the emotional, reflexive, habit-based part of the brain. Haidt likens their relative sizes to that of a rider on an elephant. While the rational rider can try to exert some control in some things, whenever a meaningful difference of opinion with the emotional elephant arises, the elephant always wins.

But before you condemn elephants as a burden, remember that they provide the strength and drive to move us past thinking (which is the rider’s forté) to doing. There can be no successful execution of a plan without the elephant.

Elephant Tactics

So wise leaders must learn how to engage the elephant in a change initiative. Thankfully, the Heath brothers have some tactical advice on this:

  • Elephants Have Feelings Too. In fact, elephants are a mass of feelings and will not move until their feelings are engaged. The way to access those feelings is to show them something that connects at a gut level and inspires a desire for change. This can be introducing them to the beneficiaries of their work or the casualties of the current system. Do what it takes to help them believe that the status quo must not continue.
  • Elicit Better Emotions. Traditional change management advice has started with creating a “burning platform.” This means stoking feelings of crisis, anxiety, and fear. However, while those negative feelings may be useful to trigger specific short-term action (e.g., fight or flight), they cannot sustain long-term change. By contrast, positive emotions such as enthusiasm, joy, and optimism tend to broaden our perspectives (making room for more curiosity and creative thinking) and strengthen our motivation to do, learn, and grow.
  • Shrink the Change. Rather than simply stating an ambitious goal and then walking away, the elephant whisperer identifies the smallest useful change in the right direction, gets the elephant focused on that task, and shows how that elephant already has the ability to complete the task successfully. This meets the elephant’s need for immediate payoff and reduces its fear of failure. Meaningful small wins build confidence and hope, which make the elephant more willing to take the next step, and the one after that. This snowball effect boosts motivation for the long haul.
  • Grow Your People. The best way to help people step up is to help them grow into precisely the kind of people who would embrace the desired change. By helping them form this identity, you help them develop a personal framework by which to adopt positive behaviors and reject negative ones. While this doesn’t happen overnight, it can happen over time if they cultivate a growth mindset. According to Carol Dweck who first coined this phrase, people with a growth mindset believe that abilities are like muscles that can be developed with practice. So putting in the work and learning from failure are worth doing. By contrast, people with a fixed mindset believe they are stuck with who they are and what they’ve got so it is not possible to change and grow. Consequently, fixed mindset people avoid challenge and failure while growth mindset people have the resilience to tackle challenge and the optimism to succeed despite failure.

The Elephant is Critical for Success

To be clear, the message of this book is NOT to toss out your planning and rational arguments for change. Rather, it is a plea that you don’t stop there. Be sure that you are providing the rider with the clarity it needs. And then, crucially, boost the motivation and confidence of the elephant so that its strength can carry you through to success.

If you are committed to change, you must engage the elephant.

Photo credit: Jeet Dhanoa

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