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How to influence change at work

Whether you’re trying to get your team to fill timesheets or trying to convince clients to stop planning last-minute sales — managing people often comes down to changing behaviour.

So, to operate more successfully as a manager, you need to influence change effectively. But that’s not an easy thing.

In a recent struggle with this, I reached for the book Switch: How to change things when change is hard for some help, and I’ve learnt a straightforward concept that’s already helped loads.

(I’m sharing it because I think it’s an easy enough concept to grasp without reading the whole book, but I recommend it to dig deeper.)

How to change things

When I want to influence change at work, I’ll often default to the classic carrot or stick — a reward for complying, punishment for not.

But sometimes that doesn’t work. Assuming we humans only respond to reward or punishment doesn’t do us justice. There’s more to us than that.

Instead, it’s sometimes better to think of three causes for someone struggling to comply with the change you’re trying to instigate:

  1. They don’t know how to do what you want them to

  2. They aren’t motivated to do what you want them to

  3. It’s too hard for them to do what you want them to

The next time you’re banging your head against a wall, wondering why someone isn’t responding to your suggestions for change, try to figure out which is the reason.

It might be all three. It might just be one. But the first step toward finding a solution is identifying which is most likely. The second is to decide the most logical tactics to combat it.

1. They don't know how to do what you want them to do

This is the most common reason and the most commonly misunderstood because it’s easier to blame someone for resisting than to doubt you’ve been clear enough.

Fortunately, it’s also the easiest to resolve.

You need to ensure the direction to the end goal is crystal clear — this can be achieved by setting clear objectives that have no room for misinterpretation. You also have to confirm they are understood and that they feel they have the tools needed to achieve them.

2. They aren't motivated to do what you want them to

It’s easier to label someone who is unmotivated as lazy, but it’s usually not the case. You just haven’t figured out what motivates them yet — you need to pinpoint what makes them tick.

It may well be the carrot or stick, it may be something else, but it has to be something that reaches them on an emotional level.

One common explanation is that the change you’ve suggested is so big that it’s impossible to imagine completing, which isn’t going to motivate anyone.

In this case, your best bet is to break the goal down into something smaller and more achievable.

For example, if you told me to run a marathon in a month, I wouldn’t jump out of bed for a run tomorrow. If you said there was a 10k race to prep for, I’d be motivated, because it’s within the realms of reality.

Another explanation is that the WHY isn’t understood and the mistake happens when you assume that it is. No one wakes up excited to fill out a timesheet, but what if they understood the impact it has on profitability and in turn pay increases? Sometimes just closing this gap in perspective is enough to do the trick in instigating change.

3. It's too hard for them to do what you want them to

Firstly, you need to ask yourself if what you’re expecting is unrealistic. If we assume you’re a logical manager setting achievable targets, it’s probably not this.

It’s more likely to be a second reason: their environment or situation is making the change more difficult than it needs to be.

Just like motivation, it’s sometimes too easy to blame the person. When in fact it’s usually the environment that’s not working well enough.

A smoker is a good example of this one. Even though they know exactly how to stop, and they are desperately motivated, they will often find it impossible to quit.

It would be easy to say they’re not trying hard enough. But it would be more helpful to suggest a change in their environment.

If they stop keeping cigarettes in the house and stop going to places that remind them of smoking, they will likely find it much easier.

The trick here is often about changing the environment and situation that surrounds them. Smoking is an extreme example but it works for any change.

This concept is something that has really helped me think differently about change. If you also found it helpful, I regularly share random advice just like this on Twitter —come say hey!


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