How to Motivate Change

One of the most basic things we need to understand about change is that it is personal. People must choose to change. People can be influenced to change by external sources (e.g., other people, events); however, for true change to occur and be sustainable each person must choose to change.

I spent decades in major corporations that were constantly implementing “change initiatives.” Some even had change programs that included rewards and incentives to get the change accepted.

In one organization one of my responsibilities became managing a change program for the division I was in. This included setting up training and communication meetings about what was happening. I was relatively new to this company and did not realize that change programs were a constant for this organization.

The thing that changed most in the organization was the programs related to getting the organization to change. I soon realized that the program I was responsible was not the only change program being implemented. To make things worse there were a number of programs already in place. So I asked, “Why implement yet another change program and why this one?”

Obstacles to Change

The answer was the others weren’t working. So they wanted to try something new. One of the executives had learned about this change program at a retreat. Well that made me step back and ask people in the organization “Why did you not implement the other program(s)?” or more basically “Why aren’t things changing?” The answers were consistent and critical to true change.

  1. The change wouldn’t make the employee’s job easier.
  2. The change was the “flavor of the month.” In other words, these programs were so frequent and not sustained that no one bothered to implement them.
  3. They were too busy with the other 150 change initiatives. (Yes there were 150 change initiatives formally recognized in the company.)
  4. The change actually went against company compensation and performance goals. If the employees implemented the change they would be reducing their bonuses substantially.
  5. Their boss didn’t want the change to happen.
  6. The change wouldn’t last. The company always went back to the “way we’ve always done it.”

I could list a hundred more reasons, but you get the point. There was no organizational or personal motivation to change, either because the organization would not truly change or it wasn’t in the person’s own self-interest.

The Decision to Change Takes a Second, But Real Change Takes Time and Commitment

For a person to engage in change of behavior (and sustain it), they must have personal stake in the change. Most people change in response to pain. If something is costing them time and money, then they will look for a solution to save time and money. If a person has a desire, a goal, a reason that is important to them, then they will engage in making a change.

Take away the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) and people do not change. In fact, people will resist change that does not benefit them because the status quo, the way things currently operate, is what’s best for them.

If you want your organization to change, then it has to be personal. The change has to benefit each person some way. In business, if you want your organization to change successfully, then your message, incentives, and WIIFM need to be clear. The WIIFM tend to be related to:

  1. Time
  2. Money
  3. Changed status
  4. Relationships
  5. Pain (relieving it)
  6. Security and safety (self-interest)

In the business world these translate into initiatives that

  1. make the job easier, more efficient (saves time)
  2. reduce costs of doing business (saves money)
  3. generate more business (generates money)
  4. happen because the boss wants it and I like the boss (relationships)
  5. make my difficult job easier (relieves pain)
  6. get me a promotion (change of status)
  7. get me a raise (generates money)
  8. makes my job more secure (security).

You can certainly add to this list. All of us act from self-interest; even the most philanthropic person has to admit they do things because of how it makes them feel. It isn’t bad or good, it simply is human nature. So to motivate change, you have to know what motivates each person you’re trying to influence.

Language of Love Translated to Business

Change comes from the heartI am not talking about office romances here. I am talking about understanding how relationships and motivations work in the workplace. They aren’t that different from those of other relationships, just at a different emotional level.

Gary Chapman writes about the “five love languages” in his book of the same name. He about the five ways people want to connect and be valued. Below are those five love languages and a definition or translation for the workplace.

  • Words of affirmation —praise, acknowledgment, and feedback in the workplace
  • Acts of service — taking someone to lunch, lending a hand during a particularly tough or hectic work schedule, doing a favor, etc.
  • Gifts — merit awards, gift certificates, merit bonuses, etc.
  • Quality time — one-on-one sessions, going to lunch, stopping by their office to check in, and the last one
  • Physical touch — not appropriate in the workplace beyond a handshake.

Each of us is different. Rarely are people going to step and tell you what they need. You can ask, but they might not even know without some introspection.

Real Life Example: Actions Speak as Loud as Words

Let me share another example from my early career years. I took on an extra project for my boss’s boss. This was a big project that would impact the entire global company if it worked. It meant I had to do my day job and still find hundreds of hours to get the project done on time. The project would require working with over 50 people including members of senior management. I was the only person on the site that could work on the building the project. I was the only one who knew how to use the software. The deliverable was an electronic presentation to the leadership team of the manufacturing division at headquarters.

So, I spent 20 hours and sometimes more for weeks at work and at home working on the project. I had to set standards and deadlines and then enforce them. I had to communicate with managers who were unfamiliar with technology and were accustom to procrastinating up to the last minute to get their reports in. In fact, one manager submitted some preliminary information and then came into the conference room minutes before the presentation was to start with changes.

Those last-minute changes would not be a big deal technically today. In the early 1990s, however, the presentation was essentially carved in stone because of how the software and technology worked. There was no time to make the changes. More importantly—and this still applies today—timelines and deadlines have to have meaning and consequences. Deadlines shouldn’t be suggestions. They are commitments.

So the manager went off screaming and ranting to senior management. He was in for a big surprise! The deadline was passed, so he was told nothing would be changed. That was an eye-opener for everyone in the organization. Things were changing.

Deadlines Mean Something!

It was especially important when it came to setting expectations of performance going forward. Deadlines were no longer “flexible.” They were etched in stone.

Senior management kept their word on how things were going to work on this project.

They provided words of affirmation for me by sticking to their word and commitments. From their perspective, I had delivered to them something they really valued, an act of service that was outside my area of responsibility and normal work requirements.

Language of Appreciation at Work

When I look at Chapman’s list of love languages and place them in the context of the workplace. I can easily identify each person’s own preference. The manager who gave me a handshake and didn’t say a thing verbally operated in the physical touch mode.

The plant manager who praised me directly and then took the time to talk to everyone in my chain of command from my boss to his boss six levels up the chain of command operated with words of affirmation.

The area manager that took me to lunch and spent time learning about what my career goals were operated in the quality time mode.

I could go on, but you get the point.

An Absence of Feedback

There were two managers that I didn’t receive feedback from my direct boss and his boss that put me on the project. I waited several days. Nothing. So one morning I walked into the boss’s office and asked for feedback. He was shocked that I “needed” feedback. He thought I “would know” how I did from his perspective.

That isn’t uncommon in the business world or life in general. We are rarely taught, shown, or coached on giving feedback. What feedback we usually get if we are honest usually comes either in a formal annual review which is so disconnected from our day-to-day performance to be meaningless. Or it is a generic “exceeds” or “meets” expectations and can’t be differentiated from anyone else’s performance review, or at worst it is purely negative.

Feedback: Constructive and Positive

If you want behaviors to change, then you have to be clear what behaviors need to change; what the new behavior is; how it will be measured, reinforced, and rewarded or corrected; and be willing to provide ongoing, recurring feedback as the learning and change process takes place.

Copyright ©2016 Lea A. Strickland, F.O.C.U.S. Resource, Inc.

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