The real first step in Change Management? Change the mindset

You may have read various article about change management. One of the most famous research articles is the one published by Kotter in 1995 with the title ” Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”. You can read it by clicking here.

However, experience has shown me, that there is an initial step which is normally forgotten or taken literally for granted that needs to be worked upon at the very start, before any change management process can even have a fighting chance to make it. The changing of mindsets.

Research indicates that executives at companies that took the time and trouble to address mindsets were four times more likely than those that didn’t to rate their change efforts as at least “successful.” Those numbers reflect the power of mind-set shifts. In human systems, they help to achieve the same effect as the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog: when employees become open to new ways of looking at what’s possible for them and their organisation, they can never return to a state of not having that broader perspective, just as butterflies and frogs can’t revert to their previous physical forms. To achieve such a metamorphosis, leaders must first identify the limiting mind-sets, then reframe them appropriately, and finally make sure that employees don’t revert to earlier forms of behaviour. I will try my very best to outline the process to shift mind-sets, with a particular emphasis on why the final stage is so important and so difficult.

Identify the root causes of behaviour that helps or hinders
Consider Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad’s management fable of four monkeys sitting in a cage staring at a bunch of bananas accessible only by steps hanging from the roof. Whenever the monkeys try to climb the steps to reach the bananas, a blast of cold water blocks them. After a few days, realizing there’s no point in trying to get the “forbidden fruit,” they naturally give up. Some humans in the room then remove the water hose and, at the same time, replace one of the original monkeys with a new one. On seeing the bananas, it starts up the steps, but the other simians, being social creatures, pull it down before it gets blasted by water. The new monkey is startled, looks around, and tries repeatedly to scale the ladder, only to be repeatedly pulled back. Finally, the new monkey accepts the group code of conduct and doesn’t bother to go for the bananas. Over the next few weeks, the onlookers remove the rest of the original monkeys, one at a time, and replace them with new monkeys that have never seen the water. By the end of the experiment, with perfectly ripe bananas sitting on the platform above, and monkeys that have never seen a jet of water, none of the animals tries to climb the steps. They’ve all learned the unwritten rule: “you don’t grab the bananas around here.”

Mind-sets ingrained by past management practices remain ingrained far beyond the existence of the practices that formed them, even when new management practices have been put in place.Hamel and Prahalad created this story not to represent any actual findings from the field of primatology but instead as a potent and memorable way to demonstrate a wider truth about organisational life—namely, that mind-sets ingrained by past management practices remain ingrained far beyond the existence of the practices that formed them, even when new management practices have been put in place.

Uncovering unconscious mindsets
The primary tool for uncovering subconscious mindsets is an interview technique known as “laddering,” grounded in the theory of personal change set out by Dennis Hinkle in 1965. The ladder employs techniques such as role playing, posing hypothetical questions, provoking participants, prompting storytelling, and drawing linkages between current and previous statements. These efforts prompt people to reflect on their deepest motives and eventually lead them to state the values and assumptions they use to construct their personal world.

The upshot? By looking at—and acting on—only observable behaviour, company leaders will likely overlook its underlying root causes. Consequently, the change efforts will likely lead to disappointment.

Reframe the root causes
Once the root-cause mindsets are identified, the next step is to reframe those beliefs and thereby expand the range of reasonable behavioural choices employees make, day in and day out. That creates the caterpillar-to-butterfly effect described earlier.

The best examples of naming and reframing are not only profound (using practical, relatable terms that reflect these deeper changes in worldview) but also insightful (raising the subconscious to consciousness in ways that expand possibility), memorable (so issues can easily be raised and discussed in day-to-day work), and meaningful (specific to the organization and evoking a “that’s so us!” response).

A simple example of reframing can be seen here. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, decided to reframe the underlying mind-set beneath the patients’ narratives. He wanted to change it from “If I behave this way, I won’t die” (fear driven) to “If I behave this way, my life will be filled with joy” (hope driven). In his words, “Telling people who are lonely and depressed that they’re going to live longer if they quit smoking or change their diet and lifestyle is not that motivating. Who wants to live longer when you’re in chronic emotional pain?” How much better would they feel, he thought, if they could enjoy the pleasures of daily life without suffering any pain or discomfort? In his experiment, 77 percent of his patients managed to make permanent changes in their lifestyles, compared with a normal success rate of 10 percent.

Make the change personal
Reframing the root causes of mindsets that block change is a critical step in the right direction and can sometimes create the desired shift in behaviour on its own. More often than not, however, employees struggle to change their behavior for reasons that are more emotional than intellectual. The single biggest barrier to rapid personal change, after all, is our propensity as leaders to say, “Yes, that’s the problem and the shift we need. If only others would change how they think and behave, we would make more progress.” This is called a role modelling change

Think about the Stimulus: Victor Frankl was an Auschwitz survivor whose seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has long challenged and inspired readers across academic and professional disciplines. He summed up, in a compelling way, the full picture of what it takes to achieve caterpillar-to-butterfly-like personal change when he wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” i.e. S (stimulus) + T (how you choose to think about the stimulus) = R (response).

The S in this equation is vital for the aforementioned work on the T to fully take hold: after all, as the story of the monkeys illustrates, the work environment is a particularly powerful shaper of employee mindsets and behaviour. Nonetheless, if employees come out of workshops committed to change but find themselves back in the very same work environment that had ingrained their original mindsets, it’s far less likely that the new mindsets will become truly personal—or permanent.When it comes to changing the stimulus (the S)—the work environment—employees are exposed to, there are four levers that you need to work with. Research and experience demonstrate that changes in thinking and behaving will be significant and sustained if leaders and employees see clear communications and rituals (the understanding and conviction lever); if supporting incentives, structures, processes, and systems are in place (the formal-mechanisms lever); if training and development opportunities are combined with sound talent decisions (the confidence and skills lever); and if senior leaders and influence leaders allow others to take their cues from the leaders’ own behavior (the role-modeling lever).

If you want to lead change, you must take on both the contextual and personal dimensions. Hence the mindsets. Mastering them is a challenge but also can be incredibly rewarding—not just for the organisations and people you’re trying to lead but also for you as a leader and, ultimately, as a person.

At EMCS we specialise in managing change in a holistic manner. The first step is taking stock of the situation and fully understanding the underlying culture being feed by the set overriding mindset in your business. Only then can we start working to create buy-in into any needed change. Feel free to contact me on to have a chat on this.

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