Switch: Shape the Path

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

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 Path can be understood as our environment, both our physical and social environment (though the social part of our environment is often particularly potent.

As I’ve mentioned in the previous two posts, the Elephant and the Rider are very important for any change efforts, and they would ideally be headed in the same direction.  So let’s suppose that we have a situation in which our Rider is completely exhausted from trying to control the Elephant, and the Elephant is wandering in whatever direction it feels like at any given moment.

In this scenario, how could we even begin to bring about systematic change?  The authors use an example of a drug-addicted veteran who returns to the United States to illustrate how this is possible.  The man’s Rider was no longer in control; the addiction was in control.  The man’s Elephant was strong, but mostly directionless.  And yet fairly quickly he was no longer an addict and showed all the signs of beginning to grow into a stable and fairly healthy life.

Why?  He was influenced by his social groups and his physical environment to completely turn around his life.  How could we make this kind of change possible for others in difficult circumstances?  The Heath brothers point to three approaches (Tweak the Environment,  Build Habits, Rally the Herd) that are common to these situations of dramatic change.

Tweak the Environment

The Fundamental Attribution Error makes it easy to believe that the problems in our organization are the people rather than the processes.  In reality, the larger and more controllable problems with an organization are most often its processes.  While it is tempting to find a person to blame and project our own insecurities onto them as character defects, it is far more effective to approach workplace problems by giving people the same benefit we so often give to ourselves and operate under the working assumption that situational factors could change the outcome for them.

Even if we concede that this working assumption may not be true in all cases, it is typically a far more efficient use of time and resources to change our business processes than it is to pay for our employees to live in a Tibetan Buddhist mountain monastery for a decade so that they can eliminate all their pathologies and become the perfect employees working in perfect harmony.  Barring this, we will simply have to accept that we all have personality pathologies along with normal human cognitive limitations and that any functional organization will be structured in such a way that success is not dependent on anyone or everyone being impeccable.

So how do we handle our numerous imperfections?  Leaders in an organization often instinctively utilize a system of punishments and rewards to motivate employees to change behaviors, importing parenting strategies for young children into the workplace.  Unless all of your employees are very childish, this strategy is unlikely to work well across the organization and will often backfire spectacularly.  And if your organization has only employees who respond to punishments and rewards like children, then you either need to stop using child labor or change your approach to staffing.  If you want to handle normal human limitations in an organization while still moving toward success, then you as the leader must stop trying to hammer the staff into shape and instead shape the path for them.

People usually follow the path of least resistance.  It is the responsibility of a leader to determine when to use the path of least resistance trod by an experienced employee and when to take a more difficult path in order to mitigate long term risks or gain long-term efficiencies.  It’s important to figure out when your organization gains efficiencies by having employees multitasking and when it loses efficiencies because those employees are multitasking while trying to complete critical business tasks that require their full attention and errors are accumulating.  Using mental tools like the Haddon Matrix can help us to shape our path to shaping the path of others.  Just remember that while it is possible to use those tools to make bad behaviors impossible, the expense of doing so must be considered in light of the benefit.  A high expense to make it impossible to sever employee hands is worth it, but that same expense to prevent lost pens probably is not worth it.  In all these scenarios, the leader needs to consider the costs and benefits of shaping the path so that the employee works harder or uses a process that slows down/speeds up the attainment of goals.

Remember that people often hate processes that change what they have been doing until they see that the results are fantastic because they are attached to the path of least resistance.  Would you want to change a process that worked well for you just because someone with a more expensive suit told you to do so?  The best way to convince others that a process change works is by demonstrating it.  If you want your employees to buy in to being more organized, show them how organization has helped you in your work.  If you want your employees to adopt teamwork practices, show them by example how it helps build functional teams.  Furthermore, leaders who want their changes to stick must communicate the successes of the altered processes and show their employees what they have accomplished by utilizing them.  Let them look back on the path and marvel at how it shaped their success.

In the end, achieving your organization’s goals depends heavily on the Path.  For example, delivering excellent customer service isn’t just a matter of asking your people to do it; the entire organization must have processes designed to support that delivery of excellent customer service. Employees without the tools and support to deliver excellent customer service cannot deliver it no matter how well-intentioned they are.  Or put in other terms, the Rider and the Elephant must tweak their environment to make a Path that actually leads to their goal; they will not reach it otherwise.

Build Habits

Habits shape our behaviors in profound ways and thus play a key role in generating the results of our actions.  Our environment makes it either easier or more difficult to build specific habits.  Identify the habits made easier or more difficult by the environment of your organization, and then alter the environment to foster the positive habits you want to cultivate in yourself and others.  For example, does your workplace environment foster a habit of frequent conversation between employees?  If so, is this a good habit for your employees who are introverts?  Or your employees who are extraverts?

The authors call habits “behavioral autopilot” and that is a fair description.  Habits are the automation of the human cognitive experience, well-trodden behavioral paths that don’t require much in the way of mental resources to travel.  It is critical to maximize the efficiency of our habits by ensuring that our habitual behaviors are consistently beneficial; if our habits are harmful, the harm is compounded each day we perform those behaviors, adding up a great deal of harm over the course of months and years.  As a corollary, the benefit of consistently beneficial habitual behaviors is compounded each day we perform those behaviors, adding up to immense benefits over the course of months and years.  This can drive massive efficiencies in the workplace as well as in our personal lives.

So how do we develop a habit?  How can we take the first step to implementing a good habit?  We can employ what the authors call action triggers, pre-loading a decision to engage in a positive behavior by connecting it with an existing behavior to which we are already committed.  In essence, we use our existing habits as support for building our new habits by tying the new behavior to the existing habit and letting the momentum of the existing habit carry it forward.  Action triggers are not magical; they will not automatically lead to our performing the desired behavior in cases in which we do not actually want to perform that behavior.  But they do make it easier for us to perform behaviors we do truly value, particularly under very distracting circumstances.

Once we have started a habit, how do we perform the behaviors involved consistently to maximize its benefit?  We have all done things that we are very good at and forgotten one little detail that caused a lot of trouble.  The solution to this is the old-fashioned checklist.  The value of a checklist is that instead of having a task done 90% correctly, we can consistently perform that task 99.9% correctly over and over.  The checklist helps us move from normal human competence and consistency to normal machine competence and consistency.  Our habits can then be built and built very well, helping us to wear behavioral paths into the rough ground of our daily life.

Rally the Herd

Herd behavior protects us from social embarrassment at a cocktail party because we can emulate the behaviors of others who seem to know exactly what to do.  But when no one in the herd knows what to do, this same behavior becomes a serious problem because it will often take much longer for anyone to act on a shared stimulus, even a very obvious and dangerous stimulus.

This problem is exacerbated by the problem of the diffusion of responsibility, a sociopsychological phenomenon which occurs in groups of 3 persons or more; the diffusion of responsibility is a problem because the individuals will each assume that an issue will be addressed by one of the other members of the group, leading us to be even less likely to act in situations in which we are operating within a group.

So how do we rally the herd despite the inertia of the herd?  When a majority of people within a group are performing a desirable behavior, you can often rally the rest of the group by praising it and rewarding it.  While doing so, be careful that you don’t do this in a way that seems canned and phony, or it will not have the effect of rallying the group and may actually be detrimental to how your leadership is perceived.

Sometimes a group will agree that a particular behavior is undesirable, but they have no idea how to rid themselves of it.  In this case, you need to lead the way by providing a model for the behaviors needed to replace that behavior with something more desirable.  This modeling of the desired behavior provides a cue for the rest of the herd to pick up on so that they know how to deal with the problem they already see ahead of them.

When the group already has strong elements in favor of changing to the desired behaviors, even if they’re in the minority, allow the space for discussion necessary for them to learn to persuade other members of the group that this new and different behavior is coherent with their identity and the goals of the organization.  This is especially important if the group members have a strong sense of personal responsibility and ethical ideals.

The use of all these strategies can help you to rally the herd and get your staff moving in the same direction on the path you have shaped together, a path you have designed to lead to your success.

Stay tuned for the next post in which I explain how to Keep the Switch Going.

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3 Responses to Switch: Shape the Path

  1. Pingback: Switch: Motivate the Elephant | Isorropia

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

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

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