Jerks Can Perform Better Than Saints: A Lesson in Change Management

Oct 20, 2011

Many times when we talk about change, we attribute any resistance the effort may have against a person or a personality type, but people aren’t the only reason change efforts fail.

In Chip Heath’s book “Switch,” he provides case study after case study of change efforts that hit the mark. In talking about people or personality types he gives the analogy of the elephant and the rider.

The latter is lead by rational thought; the elephant is guided by emotional interpretations. Both have the power to truncate momentum, but what type of change destination can be reached without talking about the path?

Consider this example of a university dorm canned food drive that Heath offers in his book. Residents of the dorm were surveyed beforehand to identify those students who were thought to be benevolent enough to donate food (the “saints”), and those who were perceived to be less charitable (“the jerks”). Then they altered the path.

One donation letter was released instructing the students to simply deliver the cans to a well-known spot on campus. A second letter was more detailed, including a map, a specific request for a can of beans, and suggested dropping the cans off at a time they would normally be at the popular spot so they wouldn’t have to go out of their way to get there.

The students who received the basic letter were not very generous. Only 8 percent of the saints donated and not a single jerk participated. Yet here’s the power of tailored communication: Students who received the more detailed letter had 42 percent of the saints donate and 25 percent of the jerks!

Point is that before we vilify others for thwarting change efforts, we’ve got to work effectively to assess the situation. Remove antiquated obstacles (i.e. processes that do not make sense), smooth the path (provide clear direction), and provide landmarks along that way that will reassure the people that they are on the right track (small wins).

This certainly makes it seem simplistic. Change meets resistance for good reason; some people even call this due diligence. Nevertheless, the “one step forward, two steps back” dance can be a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes the solution that works best might be hated most… until it becomes obvious that it works. Think about change as something that needs to inspire, inform and instruct and you’ll likely be moving your change or strategic implementation efforts in the right direction.

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