Motivating change

The other day, I was at an event on climate change and joined a discussion between a lawyer, a scientist and the CEO of a thinktank, who were debating whether it is fear, optimism or scientific evidence that will make people change.

The lawyer thought it was fear, suggesting that fear of litigation was the way to get corporations to move faster. The scientist insisted that surely, change had to be based on sound scientific evidence. Just expose people to the evidence of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, rising temperatures and sea levels, then they’ll realise they have to do things differently. The thinktank CEO felt it was about optimism. If you could develop an inspiring vision that people can buy into, show them that life will be better, then they will change.

The problem is that neither fear, optimism or evidence really seem to be working.

I believe that this is because, as the great organisational psychologist Edgar Schein points out, you actually need all three if you’re to get people to change.

Schein is an emeritus professor at MIT who developed a powerful model for releasing change when people are “frozen”. This is that very common state when people are aware of an issue, but insufficiently motivated to do anything about it. It’s very frustrating (as any innovator knows) because people come up with all sorts of excuses for inaction: The claim it’s too risky, too expensive or someone else’s problem.

Even if you show definitively that their excuse doesn’t apply, they just come up with another one.

I find his unfreezing model an incredibly useful way to think about how to motivate change, whether its large scale societal change, organisational change or helping individuals.

Schein points out that we need to provide three things simultaneously:

  • We need to provide people with incontrovertible evidence that the status quo is not OK, otherwise they won’t see the need for change.
  • We need to make people care personally about it, otherwise they’ll leave it to someone else.
  • Finally, we need to provide people with a sense of psychological safety, otherwise it will feel too risky to act.

Scientific data can sometimes provide powerfully convincing evidence that the status quo is not OK, at least for scientists. There’s masses of this on climate change, which is why they’re so concerned about it. However data and graphs don’t always engage non-scientists, for whom other sorts of evidence may be more effective. For a Carlisle householder, it might be this winter’s record breaking succession of floods, and the increasingly insupportable costs of dealing with them. For a corporation such as VW, it might be the litigation and brand damage resulting from their cheating on emissions tests. Each would provide incontrovertible evidence of the need for change. However people might still remain frozen in inaction.

If they’re to be incentivised to take personal action, people need to connect personally with the problem. Interestingly, rather than hope and optimism, the most powerful motivators seem to be a sense of guilt or anxiety. Many people who’re actively involved in tackling climate change say a big motivator is that they would be ashamed to be the sort of person who didn’t. Or that they imagine that someday their grandchild might say to them ” you knew, so why didn’t you do more?”

However even if you are convinced that change is needed and care deeply about it, it’s not necessarily sufficient. All that happens is that the stress builds up. You want to act, but are afraid to, or don’t know what to do first. Or you’re embarrassed that you’ll lose face, or that it might go wrong. This stress is very common in high pressure businesses, where the lack psychological safety can very easily lead to project teams or corporations that seem to be sleepwalking into disaster. One client of mine described her corporation as riddled with “analysis paralysis”: they worked incredibly hard, but never actually made the big decisions, because making a decision risked being blamed for a ‘failed’ decision.

This psychological safety is the critical, and often neglected, third element of the unfreezing process. Once in place it releases the motivation to act, because it reduces the personal downsides of action. It can be as simple as creating a culture of listening rather than pressurising. Or providing “practice grounds” where someone can try out a new idea without risking high profile embarrassing failures. Scientific evidence, a positive vision and the law can all help reassure us that we’re doing something that’s sensible, for good reasons and that’s endorsed by others. However, if you just provide a nice safe environment, people won’t see the need for change and will remain frozen: you need to provide all 3 elements together.

To paraphrase Schein, the trick is to make people simultaneously want to change, and feel safe to change.