Beliefs, Behaviours and the Research Behind Change Management

Insights | 09 December 2016

Only in business and economics do we think of ourselves as supremely rational beings.

When businesses are looking to evolve, we naturally expect a compelling list of reasons why employees would readily embrace change. We’re likely to assume that by getting a few key people at the top to model change, it will prompt the rest of the pack to fall in line.

Nothing suggests this to be true in the clear majority of cases, yet we too often believe it anyway.

Some call this the “irrational side” of change management. Others describe it as the space between the trigger of change and the actual change itself where so much can go wrong. But how can you be sure you are on the right track with your team or company?

We dug into the research behind change management to help answer this question. Here are four central principles to consider before embarking on any large-scale change in your organisation:

Beliefs before behaviours

McKinsey researchers advise us to look at the counterintuitive to guide us towards more effective change management.[i] Here is that concept in its simplest form: “Employees are what they think, feel, and believe in.”

Meaning, managers need to first understand beliefs before they can shape behaviours.

Take this example from the research: A bank sought to get branch workers out in front of customers more and to spend less time on paperwork. This solution set out to enact a new process that lessened the paperwork burden as well as an improved customer experience that focussed on more interaction.

When the program floundered, a deeper dive revealed that the worker’s beliefs about their positions were actually in direct opposition to the change plan; they didn’t see themselves as salespeople, they weren’t comfortable with the social aspects of their new roles, and generally reverted back to the comfortable place of introversion whenever possible.

Shifting gears, the management team then turned to tackling the underlying beliefs. They made sure the new sales aspect was framed as helping people find solid money solutions versus simply selling things. Other initiatives helped employees expand their social skills with the program being led back on track over a 6-month period. The outcome was a new framework for customer engagement and an increase in sustained sales results.

Understanding interconnectedness

Most efforts at change management fail in today’s complex business environments because leaders do not see their business holistically first, writes G. Michael McGrath, a professor of Information Systems at Victoria University and Robyn Watters of the Australian Department of Defence in the Journal of Information Technology Management[ii].

These researchers emphasise that “the success of any change innovation or practice is questionable unless all interconnected elements are captured and analysed collectively to inform an overall change solution.”

The path between a “change trigger” and actual change lies within a tricky space where even small pivots can have outsized impact when you don’t anticipate all the consequences, they write. They advocate the use of a highly structured and systematic “decision support system” as detailed by a supply-chain case study within the Australian government, but any company can benefit from their research. It’s surprising, they write, how many managers fail to simply identify all potential impacts of a change initiative. The focus needs to be on “the less-obvious consequential impacts.”

Beliefs and behaviours are about power

McGrath’s research also delves into the concept of power amid times of change – who has it and who doesn’t.

“Many organisational decisions may result in a perceived and/or real redistribution of power sources,” he writes. “There are winners and losers, and losers may resist change.”

Understanding that resistance is key.

Joseph Grenny, a noted author on business management, tells several narratives about power and influence in his best-selling book on change: “Influencers: The New Science of Leading Change.”[iii]

The business backdrops he chose to illustrate his concepts couldn’t be more diverse. He takes the reader inside a global restaurant empire and then behind-the-scenes with a team of software developers. The common threads he uncovers are compelling. In order to create change, you first need the power to influence human behaviour.

Grenny details three characteristics shared by successful influencers:

– They combine total clarity of purpose with a “zeal for measuring”. This is the difference between saying, ‘We need to change now or fall behind competitors,’ and ‘If we can increase widget output by 10,000 by this time next year, we will overtake our nearest competitor.’
– They know how to find and encourage “vital behaviours”, which Grenny describes as a constellation of behaviours that reliably produce excellent results.
– They can (and do) engage multiple sources of influence. They never rely on just one.

Seek expert advice

Sometimes change management can get overly complex. Always seek to break down your projects to the most human level and to be open to new ideas and expertise.

Consider what happens when we embark on a new job in a new industry or when we move to a new city. We immediately open ourselves up to all sorts of assistance and expertise, whether that’s tips on the best trade books to read or recommendations for movers. In short, we naturally seek help in order to navigate this new world order.

So why don’t we apply that same optimism when faced with change at work?

Our beliefs. Belief in how much control we have over the change. Belief in how much support is out there rooting for our success.

At PM-Partners, our change management experts have broken down the change journey into five fundamental steps that emphasise collaboration and interconnectedness. By looking at change as a dynamic state vs. a static programme to be rolled out from “on high”, change space to react or course-correct in real time and to positively address the core beliefs people hold about their roles and the change itself.

Those five steps are:

  • Shared vision of the future desired state
  • Visible and strong leadership
  • Appropriate and regular communications
  • Collaboration
  • The understanding that successful change takes time, rigorous planning and a focus on people, beliefs and stakeholder impact

Similarly, in another recent article of ours Embrace the Iceberg: Know What Lies Below To Foster a Pro-Change Culture, we looked at the common misconception that humans are hardwired to resist change, arguing the contrary.

Change takes a tremendous amount of positive forward motion to work in today’s complex and competitive business environments.

Tell us: How has change affected your team or company? What’s worked and what hasn’t? We’d love to hear from you.

For more information on business readiness for change, successfully managing transformation and/or agile adoption, contact us today on 1300 70 13 14.

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