Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Leading Change, Changing Beliefs

Executive Summary:
What we believe greatly influences our decisions and our behavior.  Beliefs can drive us to resist or enable us to accept.  If you are trying to drive change in an organization, consider how to manage everyone’s beliefs to enable the change.

The Rest of the Story:
Beliefs are things that we accept to be true.  I say, “accept” because what we believe does not necessarily need to be proven, or even provable, they just need to fit within our personal realm of experience.  They are also very, very powerful motivators.

People go to war over beliefs.  Given that, should it be any wonder that peoples’ beliefs about their business, their teams, their leaders, or the changes we are trying to implement can be powerful forces?  If we are going to succeed with driving change, particularly if change includes an alteration of habit or behavior, we must somehow deal with peoples’ beliefs.

Here are some examples of beliefs that can greatly affect our ability to drive change.
  • “If I pretend to play along, it will all go away soon enough and I can return to doing things the way I always have.”
  • “These guys don’t know what they are doing.”
  • “This new change won’t work.”
  • “There isn’t any way to solve this problem, it’s too big, it has been around too long.”
  • “I don’t trust you.”
  • “These methods don’t really work.”
  • “I know better than he does, and I don’t like what he wants to do.”
  • “If I don’t cooperate, it will fail.”

Anyone who has tried to lead a significant change in process, procedure, or behavior has encountered most or all of these and more.  Perhaps the greatest threat to any change is the passive-aggressive behavior:  the behavior by which people appear to play along while consciously or not-consciously resisting or sabotaging the initiative.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard people either confess to the behavior or actively plan or try to recruit others to the behavior.  Naturally, because I’m often the recipient of such antagonism, I find it highly deplorable.  I also recognize that it is so typical that it must be natural to a degree.

The resistive behaviors, including the passive-aggressive ones, are driven by fear, discomfort that accompanies change, and by beliefs.  The key to managing the behaviors is to manage beliefs.  One very important lesson that I have learned is this.  Do not try to change another person’s beliefs.  Absolutely, do not try to convince another person that his or her beliefs are wrong.

Telling another person that his or her beliefs are wrong, or that they need to change, is a quick way to turn that person into an enemy.  Any cause for change already has more enemies than friends.  We don’t need to make more.  We also don’t need to waste our energy engaged in an argument that we can’t win.

Instead, it is better to seek first to understand our people’s beliefs, then challenge them to experiment with a new one.  Accept their beliefs and the fact that they have them.  Affirm them if possible.  Once we have made the effort to understand, we can then ask others to do the same.

Such a strategy offers several benefits.  By understanding our people’s beliefs it gives us a better perspective of their feeling and behaviors.  It enables us to approach them more wisely and address their concerns more effectively.  It also helps us to understand what cultural and historical obstacles we must overcome.

When we actively take the time to understand others’ beliefs and why they have developed them, we bring ourselves closer to our peers, subjects, or constituents.  It helps to dig deep and ask questions.
  • “Why do you believe that?”
  • “Is that a simplification, or is it really that black and white?”
  • “Do you perceive any alternatives?”
  • “Do you like it that way, or do you just think that is how it has to be?”

If we can go the final step and affirm their beliefs, or at least affirm their explanation for why they believe what they do, then we have just demonstrated a willingness to put ourselves in their shoes for just a short time.

When we have made the effort to understand, and to try to experience what another experiences, then we have earned the right to ask another to do the same.  Not only can we better address their concerns and discuss their beliefs, but we can also reasonably ask them to try to see things the way we do.  Also, we might learn something about our won plans in the process.  Remember, it’s not a ploy to negotiate; it’s a real opportunity to understand.

We don’t want to ask them to suddenly change what they believe.  We do, however, want to ask them to try what we believe.  There is a big difference. 

We believe that an alternative process, procedure, system, or behavior will make work life better for a great many people.  Ask those people to try it with you and see if it is so.  Don’t suggest that their existing beliefs are wrong.  Do suggest that they could try something new, genuinely try it, not passively-aggressively pretend, and then participate in determining how it might be genuinely improved.

Because beliefs are built upon our experiences, by experiencing a new way, we can begin to formulate beliefs about the new way that are post-experience derived instead of pre-experience supposed.  We must get our people to participate.  Then, if our changes are truly beneficial, and our people experience that benefit, they can begin to construct positive beliefs about the changes we propose, the methods by which we design those changes, and trust that our interests also serve theirs.

Beliefs are a powerful force.  Do not try to attack that force.  It will devour your initiative.  Instead, acknowledge it.  Try to understand it.  Then politely ask your people to try what you believe.  You will find that your change initiatives meet somewhat less resistance and that what remains is not insurmountable.

Stay wise, friends.


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