Change you can believe in

Hand stopping domino effect

Every now and again a company needs to shake itself up, to introduce new practices whether in response to its competitive environment or changing internal dynamics. The problem is even best laid plans frequently fall short of their targets, with studies reporting that two-thirds of corporate initiatives such as quality programs and lean transformations fail. It’s long been known the main factor determining the success or failure of change is the strength of managers’ commitment to it. It’s only recently, however, that a study - co-authored by professor Johannes Meuer, Kühne Logistics University (KLU) - has investigated the cognitive foundations of commitment to change.

The innovative study by Johannes Meuer, Associate Professor of Sustainable Management and Operations at KLU, together with fellow academics Torbjørn Netland (ETH Zurich) and Maricela Arellano (HEC Montréal), conducted in-depth surveys with 76 senior managers who had recently implemented change in their organizations successfully.

“Even in an era of rapidly advancing artificial intelligence and data analytics, our research suggests that there is no getting away from the need to make sure people believe in the value of their projects,” says Meuer. “The key to successful change management remains beliefs.”

Managerial commitment, the study found, relied on specific combinations of three known belief types: behavioral beliefs, which arise from an individual’s concerns regarding the outcomes of a certain action; control beliefs, which refer to an individual’s assessment of the ease or difficulty of performing a particular behavior; and normative beliefs – someone’s belief that others will feel a certain way about a given behavior.

“Managers who committedly pursue programs combine these types of beliefs into three basic mindsets: The Follower, The Pragmatist, and The Reformer,” explains Meuer.

Followers are motivated by external pressures, whether hierarchal or peer, and are not afraid to adopt change, championing its implementation if it seems likely to improve their team.

Pragmatists, like Followers, will commit to change when they recognize the advantages for the team and themselves, but a command alone is unlikely to compel them to do so. Instead, they can be motivated by measuring implementation and creating competition with awards, for example.

Reformers, meanwhile, are positive about their own abilities to drive change, but, as opposed to The Follower, readily sees the need for change, recognizing how current practices fall short of the future being proposed.

“Managers are not all the same nor motivated in the same way, obviously, and any of the three configurations significantly increase the likelihood of change being successfully adopted,” Meuer points out. “Leaders of leaders need to inspire one of the three combinations of beliefs in each of their subordinates to trigger a strong commitment to the change.”

Meuer and his colleague’s four general suggestions to help corporate managers achieve this commitment are these:

  1. Firstly, do not assume that colleagues will be trigged by the same set of practices that motivate them, but to “fire on all cylinders”. They should provide plenty of communication, assistance, measurement reporting, audits, awards, and benchmark visits early in the change process to increase its chance of successful adoption.  
  2. Secondly, it’s vital to “focus on the why and how, not the what”. Leaders need to spend more time persuading managers why the change is the right change in light of the factors that matter most and also how to pass through the change. Drivers of change, the study recommends, need to concentrate on the process and not the outcome.
  3. There will always be managers reluctant to embrace the change being proposed. Thus, leaders need to “talk to the footdraggers” personally to better understand how these managers perceive the program, thereby increasing their ability to either address their colleagues’ concerns or adjust their own pitches.
  4. The study’s final suggestion is to “monitor and adapt tactics to nudge beliefs”. Managers commit to change for different reasons, so the outcomes of rollout tactics have to be monitored for each manager and these measures adapted accordingly.

“It is important to keep in mind that nobody is permanently a Follower, Pragmatist or Reformer, and their belief configuration depends on the context and change,” says Meuer. “Successful leaders develop a sixth sense for how their staff get onboard whatever the change being driven.”

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