Changing How You Change

Changing How You Change

“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -” ― Heraclitus


We face change in every stage of our lives. We choose what schools to attend, when to start or switch careers, where to live, whom to marry, and when (or if) to have children. We regularly see change at work with new procedures in response to technology innovation and globalization. Sometimes change comes in the form of behavior modifications we adjust ourselves, and other times it is trying to sway others to adopt new practices or alter bad habits. And although we are faced with change almost daily, most of us don’t know how it works, how to follow through with it, or if it’s worth the time and effort.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Basics

The Nuts and Bolts to Change: Key terms

According to Chip and Dan Heath, there are three key factors in making a change,   

  1. The emotional self: the elephant – or horse if you are a fan of Plato
    The elephant represents your emotions. When you make a regiment to wake up an hour earlier, the elephant is the one hitting the snooze button.
  2. The logical self: the rider
    The rider is all about making plans. The riders sits on top of the elephant and tugs on its reigns, doing its best to give directions. 
  3. The path: the route your elephant and rider travel on
    This is the environment the elephant and rider live in.

Conflicts often arise when the rider has great plans to do something and the elephant doesn’t want to budge. Or when the elephant starts walking in circles. Or when both the elephant and rider are in sync, and the path is too hard to navigate through.

When change is met with resistance, it usually means one or more of the three characters are in conflict. The elephant may not be ready to move as quickly as the rider, the rider could be making too many plans, or the environment needs to be tweaked for the elephant and rider to travel safely. 

How Does Change Work?

Most people think change happens after an intense analysis of data and a practical response to everything considered.  This is called the Analyze, Think, and Change approach. However, this isn’t usually the case. A change occurs when we see something, have an emotional response to it, and then are motivated to do something about it. It’s easy to remember if you think about it in these three words: See, Feel, and Change.

Last year’s trends are outdated by today’s standards, so it is counterintuitive to project next year's direction by last year's top sellers. Change is not an event that can be quantified and calculated, it is a fluid process that is always in motion. This is why the Analyze & Think approach doesn’t work; what may have worked in the past will probably not work now. If all we do is think and analyze data (the rider), we don’t take into consideration how the world is shifting and end up spinning our wheels.

What does provoke change is seeing something and having an emotional response to it. Don’t believe me? Think about your brand of perfume or the brand of toothpaste you use, how did that happen? Why did you take the role at your current employer, how did you get there? Finally, think about why you started exercising or made a modification to your diet. If you stopped, what influenced you to stop?


5 Ways to Make Change Work

1. Emotion Trumps Education

My first response to change is to learn as much as I can about the change. Whether it is making a change in my own behavior or helping others change, I like to cover my bases and know what the research says. Education alone doesn’t help; in fact, it can work against you. For example, how would you instigate a change in a friend who is a cigarette smoker? The education or “rider” approach is to tell this friend about all the harmful effects of smoking. Usually this alone is not enough to push the elephant to change. Why? Because smokers know smoking is unhealthy but they either choose to do it anyways or they want to quit but have a hard time getting motivation.

Think about how this concept applies to your current team at work. If your team is using outdated tools that are time-consuming and less effective, and learning a new tool feels like it will be a lot of effort to learn, will they make the change or will they default to what they know? A common response is I really would like to, but I don’t have time to learn a new tool or process.

You have to make change seem easy and worthwhile to your elephant (emotions). An easy way to make goals more achievable is to start with the small goals first. Once you (and your co-workers) knock off the first few things on the top of the to-do list, the boost in motivation will start a snowball type effect. This will build momentum to knock out the bigger tasks farther down on the list. It’s as simple as doing the easiest and quickest tasks first to build up momentum.


2. It’s the Situation, Not the People

Sometimes our environment is holding us back from making a change. When this happens, we need to tweak the environment (the path) so the rider and elephant can be more successful. For example, in the book Mindless Eating Brian Wansink suggests that people on diets use smaller plates and wine glasses. Dieters will still be eating a full plate of food (it will feel like a full plate), but the plate is smaller. This is an example of shaping the path so it is familiar, and training your body at the same time.

You can also put reminders like post-it notes in your office or around the house that remind you to keep aware of the behavior you are trying to change. It could be something as simple as putting a post-it note at your desk so every time you sit down, you are reminded to take a breath, compose yourself, and be mindful as you continue to work.


3. Turn Routines Into Habits

A habit is an unconscious routine, what some call “behavioral autopilot”. With conscious effort, you can replace old habits by creating new ones. The best way to do this is to mentally ready yourself with action triggers. An action trigger is deciding when and where you are going to do a task beforehand. These create an instant habit by preloading a decision so it is in the back of your mind.

You can use your environment to your advantage when creating a habit. Have your environment trigger a thought of change. For example, people who are want to be more productive on a business trip can use the seatbelt light to their advantage. When cruising altitude is reached and the pilot turns off the seatbelt light, one can train their brain to respond with taking out their laptop or tablet to make some quick notes about their trip while the experience is fresh in their head.

The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon that states the more exposed to something you are, the more you will like it. Repeated exposure to something new will also trigger cognitive dissonance, shaping a person’s identity in how they think of themselves and how they work.


4. Be Aware of Social Signals

If your team is adapting to a companywide change, “rally the heard” by sharing success stories of teams who have already made the transition. We are more likely to change if we see that it has worked well for other people or if others are going through a similar change we are.

Surround yourself with people making the same personal changes you want to make. We imitate the behavior of others whether we are consciously doing it or not. Good habits and bad habits are equally contagious, so be mindful of whom you share your time with.


5. You Need A Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is someone who believes they can learn from their experiences and improve on their natural talent. This mindset enables people to respond to mistakes and failures positively. Responding to failure as a learning experience will help you (and others) grow instead of becoming discouraged. Keep in mind that we all make mistakes and failure is part of the learning processes.

Change is tough and it doesn’t happen all at once. There is only so much we can do each day. If you are making a change, helping a friend adjust their habits, or part of a department or company transition, be sure to recognize that there is only so much change a person can do in a day. Early on someone may not appear as though they are making big changes, but they very well may be. This change may not be all to visible yet. Additionally, change is a drain on self-control. This is where having a strong handle on empathy comes in handy. If you are an instigator of change, you will need to be patient and focused with your team members. Reinforce positive behavior by catching people doing good things and praising them. This may sounds cheesy, but think about how a friend motivates you at the gym or during a workout, what happens? Your friend is validating your hard work and encouraging you to keep up the effort.


Let me be the first to wish you well! You’re on your way!


The book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath inspired this blog post. For more information, check out my notes and pick up a copy of your own here.


Andrew J. Wilt
SEI Junior Consultant
Apprenticeship Program