Because I Said So: Lessons in Parenting and Change Management

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Most people don’t like change—especially when it is imposed on them. It’s human nature: The more we feel as though we have no control over the change, the more we are likely to resist.

I was reminded of this recently by my 10-year old son. I took the wrong approach to getting him to do the right thing—brushing his teeth before heading for bed. I asked once. No response. I asked a second time, then a third. I know that he is old enough to manage on his own. I know he needs to decide for himself. And I know I should not tell him to do it. But, in frustration, I pushed. He pushed right back. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Dad, just because you told me to do it, I won’t!” Then he turned on his heel and walked off to bed.

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This is behavioral science 101, and my son reminded me that I should know better. It is all too common for business leaders, who are understandably impatient for change that will determine their company’s future, to make a similar mistake. And they get similar results. Companies can make important changes quickly and make the changes last but only if employee motivation comes from within.

The new CEO of a global industrial conglomerate learned this the hard way. With the full backing of his board, the CEO launched a Full Potential Transformation, the goal of which was to double the business in just four years. The plan envisioned changes on multiple dimensions: strategic, operational and organizational. After months of planning, the CEO sprung his bold plan on the troops. Management told employees what the goal was and outlined the changes needed to reach it with great fanfare and very professional looking PowerPoint slides.

A year later, nothing had been transformed. Throughout the organization, employees remained skeptical and resistant. They didn’t understand why so much had to change. In fact, they were still asking why they needed to change at all. Weren’t they doing just fine before this new CEO showed up? Worst of all, they still didn’t know the answer to the most fundamental question: What’s in it for me? Even members of the leadership team were resisting—mostly in indirect and tactful ways, which were highly effective nevertheless. To them, the transformation felt unrealistic, uncomfortable and, above all, not theirs. Nobody felt any ownership or accountability for the program, because they played no part in creating it.

This is an all-too-familiar story and one of the reasons why 88% of change programs do not work as planned. In the rush to get to an answer quickly, executives unintentionally slow down the time it takes to get results because they do not engage their organizations sufficiently up front. Engaging managers and employees while you’re still defining the change is not an abdication of strategic clarity or ambition. Rather, it is a thoughtful way to provide “freedom within a frame” to unleash creativity and build buy-in and motivation. Change leadership guru John Kotter calls this building the “guiding coalition.”

In my experience, enlisting employees on some level of cocreation leads to a better program and faster results. When people who will be responsible for implementing the change get involved in the planning, they almost always identify operational and organizational considerations that top management might not anticipate. This can help companies balance ambition with reality and design change programs that are more likely to succeed.

In practical terms, this means less death by PowerPoint and more two-way dialogue. It is important to start with the “why”—a clear and compelling statement of intent. If people are not convinced that there is a real case for change, they will be unlikely to move. If you can build a positive case—rather than trying to scare people into change—your odds of getting people on your side are higher.

Engaging with employees is also essential during rollout and implementation. The one-way CEO speeches and videos, as powerful as these can be, will not motivate people to start brushing their teeth. The two-way conversation between an employee and his or her supervisor is much more effective. Another lesson from behavioral science: Proximity trumps hierarchy when it comes to who has the greatest influence on individual behavior. To scale engagement, successful programs use some kind of enrollment cascade in which teams throughout the organization have a chance to discuss what the change means for them in their divisions, geographies and functions.

The next time you prepare to launch some sort change initiative in your business—even something relatively small in scale—think first about how you will enlist employees in the process. Remember my 10-year-old son. Simply telling people what to do will get you the results I got. Engage employees, listen to them, find ways to unleash their intrinsic motivation, creativity and energy, and you’ll get the results you want.

David Michels leads Bain & Company's Results Delivery® practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

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