How to Accelerate a Shift in Thinking and Behaviour

You have a great idea that you believe will have a positive impact and to make it happen, people need to shift their thinking and behaviour. The problem is, people do not change because you tell them or because data and rigorous analysis shows it is the right thing to do.

To understand why people behave this way and to find the key to getting unstuck and accelerating meaningful change, we need to go back to ancient times.

For our Stone Age ancestors, life on the Savannah Plain was short, dangerous, and fragile. As weak, fur-less bipeds, they constantly had to be on the alert for life-threatening hazards. Essentially, this meant anything that was new and unfamiliar, which was untested and thus risky. Therefore, they distrusted unfamiliar and confusing ideas and stuck with what they knew. Better safe than sorry. To this day, this is hardwired in our brains.

In one-on-one confrontations with fast and powerful predators, our Stone Age ancestors stood no chance. Therefore, they sought safety in numbers, which explains our deep desire to belong. Doing so required, and still does, building, maintaining and not damaging or losing bonds with meaningful, similar others, because becoming an outsider to the tribe was literally a death sentence.

Therefore, engaging in or adopting innovative ideas and behaviours that ran counter to the tribe’s worldview was perceived as very dangerous, particularly when the tribe’s survival or success was not at risk. To this day, this is hardwired in our brains. It also explains why we often choose to look good to those we care about rather than accept and act on facts, why many don’t like giving or receiving feedback, and why we often avoid acknowledging the elephant in the room.

The key to accelerating a shift in thinking and behaviour is, therefore, to create conditions that people are familiar with and believe, because this is what they already agree with and want (but perhaps don’t yet have). When you can achieve that, there is no need to argue and convince the other. By default, you are on their side and they are on yours.

For larger scale change and transformation initiatives, this needs to be done at a relevant level of social groupings, because the worldview of, say, C-suite executives is not the same as of people in operations, safety, finance, marketing, or those at sites far away from the head office.

Next, it is about enabling people to see from a different perspective how what they believe, puts what they want in jeopardy. There are a number of ways in which you can achieve this. A simple yet powerful approach that you can immediately apply is to have a “what if?” conversation:

  • What if our strategy was founded upon faulty assumptions that went unchallenged, because the strained working relationships between key department heads turns out to be undiscussable?
  • What if operations doesn’t deliver the new products within time and budget, because the project teams continue to turn every nice-to-have into a need-to-have instead of adhere to the new lean approach?
  • What if the talent recruited for our new strategy leaves prematurely, because their well-intentioned development managers focused more on results achieved than support and development needed?

Through this approach, your audience becomes aware on their own terms of the problem faced, the urgency with which it needs to be addressed, and sees the solution as their own.

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