A Lesson in Change Management

by Isabella Brusati on 30/04/2012

I deal with change management on an ongoing basis and what never fails to amaze me is the inertia of some senior managers in front of severe problems the company is facing. Even if the shares are plummeting, the press is slaughtering them for poor performance and the shareholders voice their concerns, those senior managers seem to be paralysed.

A few weeks ago I read a very interesting book called “Awaken The Giant Within” by Tony Robbins. It is not strictly a business book, but I found that plenty of the concepts elaborated by Robbins on personal change can be applied to organisational change.

I am particularly fascinated by Robbins’ view that in order to make change happen we have to look at the concept of pleasure and pain. Unless an individual experiences a massive amount of pain that makes the him/her realise that they have to change and the change has to happen now, there would not be enough motivation to follow through.

Let’s imagine someone who is overweight. S/he may think to go on a diet and starts what is usually called yo-yo dieting (starts, then stops, than starts again and then stops). Unless this individual reaches his/her pain threshold they will not have any motivation to change and to reach their ideal weight. Only if they get to the point where they feel consistently tired, their mobility is severely diminished, they feel lethargic all the time and depressed, develop diabetes and other illnesses their mind may go “enough is enough, I have to change now”.

The pain has to come from the inside. Have you ever been in that position where your internal voice says “that’s it. I have to change, now!?” If the change is only external (for example an increase of the price of food) change will not happen and most of all it will not last.

The level of pain the person is experiencing must be of such level that the fear of change, the fear of the unknown is minimised compared to the pleasure the person will experience. In the example of the individual overweight the immense pleasure could be being more energetic, depression disappearing, being able to move without restrictions and general well being.

A strong motivation for change in itself is not enough. The individual may decide that enough is enough, but after a few days going back to the old routine. Why doesn’t change last? Because the person has not identified a powerful alternative, something that gave them the feeling they had sought by over eating. In other words they have not identified the immense pleasure. Only if the level of pleasure is much more urgent and intense than the level of pain and only if the individual intensely believes that the pleasure that s/he will gain is much higher than the pain of his/her current situation the change will occur and be long lasting.

The theory elaborated by Tony Robbins is mirrored by John Kotter. In his bestselling book “Leading Change” Kotter highlights that one of the elements that lead to successful change is creating a sense of urgency. In my experience the reality of most companies in trouble reflects a sense of low priority. Unless the threat is really urgent and imminent, most of the executives are totally not reactive. And, going back to Robbins’ theory, this is because their level of pain has not reached the threshold level (they still have a job, they spend most of their time doing what they have been doing for the past 20 years in the same company) and because they have not identified a more powerful alternative.

What can a change manager do (in collaboration with authoritative decision makers in the company)? Create a sense of urgency: make the senior executives reach their pain threshold, making them face the reality and seriousness of the situation. And show them what the consequences will be for them: redundancy, loss of status, demotion, etc. The pain must be real and there must be a sense of urgency.

They have to feel the breath on their neck. It does not mean that you would have to create a sense of terror, this would be counterproductive.

You would have to make managers accountable for their destiny. In fact I would like to add to Kotter and Robbin’s views that the pain must be personal. Unless the senior executive is going to experience a significant loss that affects him/her directly there may not be enough motivation to embrace change and maintain the momentum.

Isabella Brusati, LLB (Hons), LLM, FCIPD
Managing Director



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