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Six Social Change Management Lessons

A big part of a change leader's job is understanding how and why people do what they do in order to influence that behaviour. We craft strategies and plans, and write fancy presentation packs and develop training plans. But there is more to the story.

Six Social Change Management LessonsHow useful would it be if you could predict or at least have some idea of people's reaction to a proposed change? You would be more empowered to help them and improve the odds of achieving the benefits hoped for.

There are a handful of social psychology lessons you can employ to great effect. In this article let's look at six social psychological principles and how you can use them to target your change activities more effectively.

Six social psychology lessons applied to change management

  1. Liking

    It almost goes without saying that we trust people we like more than those we don't. We are more likely to like someone who flatters us, for example. We're also more disposed to like and trust people are who are better looking. Researcher Dan Hamermes explains in his book, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful why good looking people have more opportunity, and thus more success than less attractive people.

    What this means for change leaders

    It's normal and natural for people to resist change at some level. Some will do so vigorously. Leaders hate this, because it can threaten to derail a project for fear that dissent and attitude will spread like a cancer. The worst thing you can do is make them ‘wrong’ for resisting. Instead, invoke the 'liking' effect and meet with them, empathise and listen, and generally build a relationship of trust.

  2. Consistency

    In their famous 1966 experiment, Freedman and Fraser send someone around to ask people to place a small card in a window of their home supporting safe driving. Two weeks later, the same people were asked by a different person to put a large sign in their front yard advocating safe driving. The result: 76% of people who agreed to the first request now complied with the more intrusive request, compared to only 20% of people who were never asked to put a sign in their windows and were just asked to put up a large sign in their yards.

    The lesson here is that you are more likely to get a big 'yes' from someone if you get a small 'yes' from them first. People tend to want to act consistently from how they acted in response to the first request.

    What this means for change leaders

    Don't ask for too much up front. It's common to announce a big organisational change, which asks a lot from people. Instead, start small and ask for smaller steps that will move people along the path. In a year's time people will be surprised about how far they've come. Think big, but plan small.

  3. Authority

    We tend to believe and act on requests from those who have power. In one experiment, sneaky researchers dressed in doctor's garb at a hospital without any other attending identification, asked nurses to give patients what the nurses knew to be lethal doses of medication. The overwhelming majority of the nurses did so without question (they were not allowed to actually inject the unassuming patients).

    What this means for change leaders

    Find the most obvious person in the hierarchy - this will usually be the project sponsor - and have them lead from the front articulating the reason why this initiative is important and must be done now. Ordinary hierarchical power isn't always enough - look for those who, by dint of their tenor, technical skills and personalities rise to the top. These additional attributes appeal to authority and will help others adopt the change as well.

  4. Scarcity

    The scarcity principle is powerful. So much so, that in one study, researchers put ten cookies in one jar, and two identical cookies in another and had people rate which jar of cookies they liked better. Twice as many people said they liked the jar of just two cookies, even though they were exactly the same.

    What this means for change leaders

    By creating the perception that an organisation is leading edge (for example, illustrating a huge customer response for a company's products and services) is a great way to show demand. Other ways to use scarcity is to galvanise the organisation. For example, stating that you must act now or you'll miss the window of opportunity. Competitive pressures such as this can help shock people out of complacency.

  5. Social proof

    Marketers use this all the time by displaying testimonials about the results and achievements from the product or service in question. There is safety in numbers. Nobody wants to eat at an empty restaurant. So, if something is in demand and therefore scarce, it must be valuable. 

    What this means for change leaders

    Social proof can be an excellent way to cascade a change. Grab favourable comments and case studies from key employees throughout the organisations who are really exemplifying the change and broadcast this far and wide. This will help people see that others are really getting on board and being rewarded for it. You can also keep numbers on system usage, for example, and publish it periodically. Once there is a critical mass of social proof, the change adoption will gain significant momentum.

  6. Reciprocity

    Simply put, we feel obligated and indebted to people who do things for us, even when we didn't ask for it. Like the nice people handing out samples of sausages in the supermarket, it can used to trigger an unfair exchange: a free sample for overpriced premium sausages.

    What this means for change leaders

    In the same way you'd repay a colleague who helped you with a project at work, change leaders can employ this principle by creating bonuses and benefits for just getting involved in the initiative. Once the employees are engaging even a little they will be more likely to repay with their attention and effort.

Note of caution: If done without a little tact when applying these principles, people may feel as if they’re being manipulated and switch off altogether. Once this happens your change initiative will be all but dead from then on. So be genuine and sensitive when approaching your change management strategy.


Author Credits

Daniel Lock is Principal of Daniel Lock Consulting, a firm focused on organizational and individual performance improvement. Contact him at www.daniellock.com & Blog at daniellock.com/blog email Daniel@DanielLock.com and phone 0413 033 703
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