Switch: Motivate the Elephant

Now that we have learned how to Direct the Rider, it is time to move on to the next phase of the Heath brothers’ plan for change and Motivate the Elephant.

The authors of Switch begin with the process of directing the Rider in their Rider/Elephant/Path model of understanding human change.  In this model, the Elephant can be understood as our capacity for emotion and the passionate drive that makes success possible.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we tend to operate based on our current emotional state once our capacity for self-control (the Rider) is exhausted.  Because self-control is such a finite resource and our emotions take over once it is gone, it is important that we manage our emotions in such a way that our success can be supported by them when self-control has left.

Ideally, our emotional state and our self-control would operate in tandem to move us toward success, but this requires that both be going in the same positive direction.  Getting our emotional state going in the same positive direction as our self-control requires building a habit of living in a positive emotional space, which is far from easy to accomplish in my experience because of our previously mentioned negative event bias or problem focus, as the authors called it.

In addition, when we are not in a positive emotional space, small problems inevitably appear larger and simple daily tasks can seem overwhelming.  This can be a huge hurdle to our success because those small tasks are important milestones for convincing ourselves that we can achieve success, and if we refuse to take on those small tasks we never build enough momentum to move toward success.

Of course, a positive emotional space doesn’t automatically make us good at change.  Positive illusions, a term for our inability to evaluate ourselves well, keep us from engaging the Elephant because we are happy with who we are and therefore see little need to change, an effect that is often most pronounced in the area of greatest opportunity for improvement.  We can be so happy with who we are that we fail to consider that we could be even happier.

This can also be seen in what is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  We define our competence in ways that are convenient for our self-assessment.  This is a serious problem for our self-improvement in both our personal and work lives.  It usually takes engaging the Elephant to break this pattern.

When there is no way to make an analytical case for change, the best thing to do is to make an emotional case for change; motivate them by appealing to their identity, by making it clear that enacting the change is exactly what the kind of person they believe themselves to be would do.

So how might we go about directing the Rider in ways that can overcome these difficulties?  The authors propose that we Find the Feeling, Shrink the Change, and Grow Your People.

Find the Feeling

Many organizational leaders have used the strategy of appealing to the emotions of their subordinates to motivate them.  Fear is a common way to motivate the Elephant; fear of being fired, fear of losing hours, fear of losing respect or a good reference.  “Burning platform” crisis generation often works to get people to make quick change in a specific direction, and that’s useful, but it will not prompt sustained long term continuous improvement.  Negative emotions tend to make us cautious about doing anything new; we are likely to retreat to our familiar and comfortable habits in a crisis.

We can manufacture crisis to generate fear as often as we like, but this only works as a long term way of motivating change if we are willing to place our employees in a constant state of fear. Not only does this tend to put a serious damper on employee productivity, it also tends to result in high turnover and lost efficiencies in terms of how those employees work with others because it leaves them in a consistently negative emotional space.

Positive emotions need to be engaged for sustained long term continuous improvement because unlike negative emotions, they open us up to doing new things, to getting out of our comfortable habits and building new ones.  They make the space for change open up in front of us and prompt us to move into that space because we feel secure in making that move.  They also have the added benefit of creating opportunities for more effective teamwork as our team members feel more secure in working with one another.

So what can motivate us to change in a positive way without taking us into a negative emotional space?  Demonstration, demonstration, demonstration.  When you want people to understand something, show them.  Let them feel it for themselves.  This makes it more believable.  As humans, we are more likely to believe things that we have experienced for ourselves.  And until it is a problem we can believe in, we are unlikely to offer a solution anyone can believe in.

Once the problem is seen as real, we have to point to a solution so that the Rider doesn’t keep the Elephant going in circles while he ponders the problem.  As the authors point out, “We can make an impeccably rational case for change and people still won’t change. …Why can’t we simply think our way into new behavior?  The answer is that, in some cases, we really can’t trust our own thinking.”  This thinking ourselves in circles behavior is part of why we can’t trust our own thinking to solve every problem.

To get out of this circular negativity and engage a positive emotion that won’t keep us locked in the same old behaviors with a superficial contentment, we need to tap into our capacity for building an identity.  People need to be able to identify with the kind of person they want to be if we are to engage the Elephant.  Being successful, diligent, creative, or whatever other positive trait we propose as a result of change can be a great motivator because it taps into our deepest aspirations.

Find a way to help others make a positive identity and understand that they are developing toward realizing that identity, and you have found the feeling that can motivate lasting change.

Shrink the Change

A large part of why change seems impossible is that it looms so large when understand all that we need to accomplish to implement that change over the next five years.  In order to keep from getting overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead of us, we need to shrink the change so that we can see how manageable it really is.

The first step is to remove roadblocks to success.  Unnecessary barriers can build up and prevent success in any organization.  If one of those barriers can’t be removed, it may be necessary to give people the tools to get through it more quickly.  Those barriers may be internal policies, external policies, or interpersonal issues.  Regardless of what the barriers are, we must help our employees find ways to overcome them on the way to the changes that will make us successful.

Once we are past the barriers, then we can set incremental goals so that people get an early win or two.  Their motivation will ramp up because they can already see that they can accomplish goals, making them more confident in tackling future goals, including larger ones that they might have avoided previously.

Shrink the change in the person’s mind by pointing out how far they already have come toward making that change a reality. A person is more likely to finish the journey if they believe that they have already started it.

Reinforce existing successes.  Sometimes people just need to have their current success put into perspective.  This often leads to further successes as they begin to identify themselves as successful people and act in ways to make themselves more successful.  In this way successful change becomes a self-perpetuating habit and the Elephant can keep moving along at a steady pace while in a positive emotional space.

Grow Your People

Our next step is to grow our people, and how can we do that?  When implementing the change, identify what sorts of identities foster positive behavior and spread those identities to the rest of the group.  Cultivate the strong sense of identity that exists in people who excel in their work.

When fostering an identity, set the expectation of temporary setbacks and small failures along the road to success.  When those setbacks and failures happen and are overcome, positively reinforce that success as indicative of the greater success to come.

Cultivate a growth mindset in yourself and others.  Seek feedback so that you can get better at everyday tasks, and remember that our minds are like a muscle we can build with exercise just like our bodies.  Embrace failure as a learning opportunity rather than fearing it as a source of recrimination or punishment.  Failures and the challenges that come with them have corresponding opportunities of the same scale.  Model this approach to failure so that you empower your employees to do the same.

Our people need to see themselves growing in happiness if we want them to grow in other ways, so the best thing we can do is to help them to be as happy as we can.

Stay tuned for the next post in which I explain how to Shape the Path.

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4 Responses to Switch: Motivate the Elephant

  1. Pingback: Switch: Direct the Rider | Isorropia

  2. Pingback: Switch: Shape the Path | Isorropia

  3. Pingback: After the Switch: The Inertia of Change | Isorropia

  4. Pingback: Fair Questions: How can I be more tolerant of other views? | Isorropia

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