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A Surprising Feature of Successful Behaviour Change Communication

We all love positive leaders - CEOs and executives who paint an exciting, coherent vision of the future.  Such enthusiasm can be contagious.

Last week, I talked about the dark side of leaders being too optimistic.  This is an issue when leaders don't confront reality and ignore capability gaps, system pressures and a lack of resourcing.  Effectively shutting down employees from raising potential problems that need to be course corrected to avoid major disasters.

This can be devastating to corporate cultures.  After all, Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Professor, found in her research that high performing teams look dreadful on paper.  They have a list of errors that they bring to meetings.  In contrast, low performing teams look great - they have pretty much no errors to report in meetings.  Of course, the reality is that high performing teams have lots of errors because they want to fix them.  While poor performing teams, don't feel safe enough to talk about problems.

What I have found in my research, interviewing stakeholders about what they need to trust leadership, is that they want to talk about the problems.  In fact, if leadership aren't addressing why targets were missed, people will want to know why.  If anything, it drives them crazy not knowing why goals are not being met. Employees want to be part of the conversation as to what is working and what isn't.

Interestingly, employees will tend to reject a jump into the future if they don’t get to discuss the company’s dirty laundry. They need to be able to air their grievances first before they can jump onboard the future train.

When I asked employees what they needed to hear from leaders to believe the new future, they all followed a bit of a pattern.  So let me share this simple technique with you.

Communicating to Create Certainty

Change is quite frightening to the emotional brain that wants to keep us safe. Leaders who know how to tap in and connect to deep subconscious patterning ensure people trust them and the organisation.

Typically, when employees resist change it is because management has not comprehensively explained why change is necessary and how it is beneficial. 

The best way to do this is through clear and transparent communication.  After all, trust is enabled through communication.  But it’s not just about telling people about the vision and hope they get excited.  Instead, there are things that the brain loves to hear that move people into the achievement zone of their brain.

Leveraging the Gap

Have you ever watched a bad movie?  Even though the wooden acting and clumsy plot lines were frustrating, you still felt compelled to keep watching.  You were hooked into finding out what happened next to the hero in the story. 

This need to know what happened is called the “gap theory.”  Research by George Lowenstein from Carnegie Mellon University found that humans don’t like having an obvious gap in knowledge.  Not knowing something is like needing to sneeze, but you just can’t. The knowledge gap creates discomfort that we need to fill, as soon as we can.  

Curiosity happens when we have a gap in knowledge. So when there is a void between where we are and where we need to get to our brain is driven to close that gap. It creates tension that drives us to keep searching to find the answer and get closure. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. We keep working on putting all the little pieces together, so that we can see how they interrelate to create the big picture.

Our brain wants to fill the gap, so it can be prepared for any future surprises.  And the good news is that leveraging the gap can be used remarkably well to explain change to employees.  That’s because interest develops from gaps in knowledge.  Having a gap is uncomfortable.  It motivates us to work out how to close it.  It sparks our curiosity.

When communicating to employees, the best way to utilise the gap theory is through highlighting two markers on a map - where you are now and where you want to be.  

It’s a bit like going into a big shopping centre and searching for a store.  You type in the name of the shop into the electronic map billboard.  Then, a short movie will play highlighting the journey - or the actions you need to take to close the gap. 

And that’s what you want to do in your communication - introduce the future to people like you’re drawing out a “You are here” map.   Take people on the journey explaining what the present reality looks like, what’s not working and how things need to work to get to the future.  

As I mention in the the book, Trusted to Thrive in more detail, successful behaviour change communication focuses on two elements:

1. Current state (here’s where we’re at) – Where the business stands.  The current context. - what the company is achieving, how people work together, what capabilities people have and the impact this has on customers. Then, to encourage people to accept the new change talk about why what they’re doing now isn’t working. The more intense, the better. 

If there is time, also deep dive into your thinking about the issue.  People need to understand the rationale behind any change, so that it is sound.  It provides them with the confidence that the business will survive long-term because leaders know what to do.  It also helps them understand why work matters.  

2. Future state (here’s where we want to go) – This is about what's coming up next and the plan to move forward.  The future goal and how it will make customer lives better. It’s painting a picture of what success looks like and future capabilities, so people can determine whether they they have the right skills and mindset.  It even means discussing the potential obstacles and pitfalls. After all, there is never a smooth and easy journey to a future goal. Honestly discussing the risks and the negative experiences on the road keeps it real. It also makes people more likely to not only expect derailments only the way, but to be more open to solving them.

Amy Edmondson says it’s about framing work as learning problems rather than execution problems. This requires being clear about uncertainty and how everyone’s input matters: “We’ve never been here before, we can’t know what will happen, we’ve got to have everybody’s voices and heads in the game.”

This technique is great for talking about a project when different groups are working on separate elements.  It helps them better understand what customer success looks like and the role they play in that.    

In my research, leaders who intuitively contrasted the present to the future improved employee engagement and job fulfilment.  Use this technique in team meetings and one-on-ones to quickly articulate the future and why it's necessary.  Explaining the future in terms of the change in customer experience is a critical component.

Linking to the Present Effort

In the excitement of talking about the future, leaders don't realise they need to start with talking about the present.  Over-worked employees who are frustrated with using outdated systems and working in an under-staffed team aren’t interested in the future.  They are too busy surviving.  Leaping to the future is not motivating for them when they are drowning because current issues aren’t being addressed.  All it does is create more anxiety.

Addressing the current state helps our brains understand why change is necessary and that leaders can be trusted.  Once that has been outlined and understood, then leaders can draw people into a compelling and exciting future.

Where do you feel you can use this technique?


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