BLOG: Leadership Insights

Get Email Updates

A conversation with Dan Heath on How to Change When Change is Hard

April 8, 2011
Dan Heath

Following his May 12, 2010 broadcast , Dan Heath, co-author of Switch, sat down with Linkage’s Rich Rosier to discuss how leaders can make change happen and make it stick. To describe organizational change in this presentation, Dan Heath used the analogy of a human-scale rider (representing the rational system) on the back of an elephant (‘the emotional system’) which naturally begged the question…if those two ever were to disagree about which direction to go, who would your money be on?…

Rick Rosier: How does one go about influencing a culture that is much bigger than one person looking to initiate change?

Dan Heath: That’s a great question and it relates to something we talk about a lot in the book about rallying the herd consistent with the elephant metaphor.  And one very reliable finding from psychology is that people behave the way they do because they see other people behaving that way. There are studies that show that obesity is contagious; that if someone close to you becomes obese, it actually greatly increases the chance that you will become obese.  There are studies that show college roommates that are put with other drinkers see their GPAs go down.  So we know that culture is a critical factor in the way people behave.

A piece of advice I would have, is whenever the social norms are in your favor, you’ve got to publicize that.  For instance, at a lot of organizations, people struggle to get people to turn in their expense reports on time.  And so what happens?  The controller sends out these broadcast e-mails to everybody. It’s got this kind of angry tone with lots of capital letters, underlines and exclamation points.  What message is really being sent by this e-mail?  That it’s actually pretty common not to turn expense reports in on time.  Otherwise, why would they bother to send a message, right?  So you are actually publicizing the wrong norm.

In that case, my suspicion is that probably 70% or 80% of people turn theirs in right on time. So instead, send out a note that says thank you to the 70% or 80% of people who have turned their expense report in on time.  And for the rest of you, we would appreciate you getting it in as soon as possible.

Now sometimes, and especially in the early stages of a cultural change situation, the norms may be against you. In that case, you’ve got to use an alternate strategy called “free spaces” where you carve out a place for people who are your change advocates to be able to plan, gather strength from each other, and be isolated from those cultural pressures that will tend to fight against the change.

Rick Rosier: So you are encouraging folks as a single individual who have a large change process ahead of them to try to find and influence those who are closest to them and build inertia from there?

Dan Heath: Exactly.  A lot of times, what really gets an organization to move is the sense that there’s a big opportunity out there, and that the old ways of doing things is going to get you in trouble.  You first must play on the emotions. You need to be very clear about the behavioral instructions.  If your team is sympathetic to the change, make sure everybody knows it-because everybody wants to fit in and everyone wants to respond to the way other people are acting.  If most of your team is not in favor of the change, your strategy should be to protect those people that are in favor of your plan, and give them enough free space so that their enthusiasm does not get stomped down.


Rick Rosier: Can you speak to how to engage the elephant in an engineering focused organization that is not comfortable with anything but rational discourse?

Dan Heath: Well, I think the first thing to remember is the most analytical engineer has an emotional system–an elephant–and is not fundamentally any different from any other person.  I will give you one example from Microsoft to illustrate that. When working on new programs, Microsoft would get market tests and would bring back data.  Microsoft once gathered some data that showed that six out of every 10 users found a particular feature to be very frustrating.  The developers looked at the data and said, “Where did you find these dumb six people?” How could one have gotten these developers to change?  Microsoft started inviting the developers to come watch the beta test sessions so they could actually stand over people’s shoulders and watch the way they interacted with the program.  That changed everything.  It made them view things differently.  They started seeing the kind of cognitive errors people were making, many of which were easy to fix.   That’s a great example of change that comes from emotion.  In this case, the emotion was empathy.  So never abandon the attempt to get people to feel something just because of their analytical nature.

If you can show people that the change you are suggesting is consistent with the person that they aspire to be, that is a great leg up for your change.

Rick Rosier: In Switch, you talk a lot about identity.  Why is that so important and how do leaders create it?

Dan Heath: There is a political scientist at Stanford named James March who says that there are two fundamental ways that people make decisions in the world.  One of them is what he calls a “consequence model” which is sort of the economics model.  We have a decision to make, we look at our options and we weigh the costs and benefits to maximize our utilities so to speak.

The other model is what he calls the identity model which boils down to three questions that people implicitly ask themselves.  The first question is who am I-meaning what kind of person am I?  The second is what kind of situation am I in?  And the third question is what would people like me do in this situation?  And so notice what’s missing from those three questions:  No sense of calculation.  No sense of cost or benefits.

March says that very often the way people vote is determined by the identity model rather than the consequence model. In fact, one of the single largest sources of emotion is identity (and I don’t mean racial identity or ethnic or religious.  What I mean is the kind of person we aspire to be.  I want to be a great innovator or I want to be a great leader of people.  I want to be a diplomat and bring people together.)  If you can show people that the change you are suggesting is consistent with the person that they aspire to be, that is a great leg up for your change.

When you hear people say that the change is hard because people are lazy, I want to suggest that that is just flat wrong.

Rick Rosier: Your research talks about how self-control is an exhaustible resource and how that plays into the whole change process.

Dan Heath: Indeed. There is some fascinating research going on.  What these researchers have found is that our self-control is exhaustible.  It’s like a muscle in the sense that it can get fatigued if you use it too much.  And when I say self-control, I don’t mean things like turning down a drink or a piece of cheesecake.  I mean a broader sense of self-control, any time you have to carefully regulate what you are doing.  So it could be even things like learning a new dance step or giving performance feedback to an employee; any time where you kind of feel like there is a supervisor on duty in your brain, that’s self-control.

We have all experienced this, right?  We have a hard day at work, we have been on all day, we come home, and it’s that night that we are most likely to snap at our spouse or to have one drink more than we need.  We simply run out of self-control. This is hugely important for change. By definition, change will sap self-control because what you are doing in a time of change is you are taking behaviors that have become unconscious, automatic and you are replacing them with behaviors that require that self discipline, that require that supervisor to be on duty.  And so every moment of that change, the self-control bank is drawing down.

So when you hear people say that the change is hard because people are lazy, I want to suggest that that is just flat wrong.  That in fact, change is hard because people exhaust themselves.  They run out of the self-control that they need to make the change.

So what do you do?  Well, I think in many cases it is as simple as thinking of change as a snowballing process rather than a snap-in process.  If you are a change leader, think in terms of how you can sequence change, get a little bit of victory, make those behaviors automatic, and then move on to the next one rather than changing everything overnight.

Rick Rosier: Change is a topic that has been the focus of hundreds of books, articles, and presentations.  How does Switch bring something new to the table?

Dan Heath: If you walk into a book store, one surprising thing that you see is that change books are in all sorts of different places.  There is a self-help aisle with ways to improve your life, ways to fight alcohol abuse, and other kinds of additions.  There is a business aisle where you can find books like John Kotter’s and books about how to change organizations.  And then in other places you can find books about social activists who have changed the world.

But what we wanted to do with Switch is to show that there are patterns that make all these different kinds of change. Even when you talk about very different kinds of change like one person going on a diet or another person changing society in some way like with the recycling movement, ultimately for anything to change, individuals somewhere have to start acting differently.  Even the biggest changes ultimately funnel through individual behavior changes.  And once we kind of caught on to that, we began to see that you could use the same change strategy with your kids than with your peers at work because all of us have similar psychology and all of us make changes in our lives for similar reasons.  It was to spot and share those patterns that we wrote yet another change book.

As a manager, you can set the expectation that you will not make those temporary struggles an excuse not to make the long-term destination that you all want to get to.

Rick Rosier: Setbacks are inevitable with change.  You are going to have some failures, maybe they are not catastrophic but they are setbacks.  What do you encourage leaders to do to deal with those and to reengage the folks in the change effort?

Dan Heath: In the business world, we are not accustomed to having a practice stage.  It’s like we are used to having a planning stage and then an execution stage.  And if something goes wrong, it’s poor execution.  But I think we need to bring back the practice stage.  In fact, there’s some research from a woman at Stamford named Carol Dweck through a fabulous book called MindSet which I would recommend all of you rush out to Amazon and buy. In her book, she explains that to reach your potential at work, in sports, or in other domains you need to think of your skills as something capable of getting stronger with practice.  So in a time of change, nobody should expect that within a matter of weeks or even months everything is going to be perfect.  It won’t.  There is going to be struggle.  They’re going to be failures.  But as a manager, you can set the expectation that you will not make those temporary struggles an excuse not to make the long-term destination that you all want to get to.

Rick Rosier: You mentioned in the book that part of your objective was to keep it simple because if you complicate it too much, people just can’t remember it all.  What would you encourage leaders who are trying to be successful with change to do differently?

Dan Heath: I’m going to cheat and suggest two things. I think these are the two most important things that you can do as someone who is pushing for change.

The first is to find the bright spots.  “Bright spots” is this philosophy of not letting people spend their time moaning and groaning about the problems. By finding the bright spots, you go to that place where things are working, even if it’s just in a small environment, even if it’s just a couple of people or a couple of customers. Go to that success and figure out why it was possible for that to succeed.  Spend the same amount of time obsessing about success as you spend obsessing about failure.  That’s point one.

Point two is not to forget about the split in our psychology.  We are all wired to address the rider.  But don’t forget about the elephant because the elephant nine times out of 10 is probably the reason that change efforts don’t succeed.  People don’t feel the need for change.  They are comfortable with the way it is. As a leader, you must think long and hard about how to get people to see the need for this.

Rick Rosier: Dan, thank you so much for being here and so much for sharing your work with us.

Dan Heath presented on How to Change When Change is Hard as part of Linkage’s Thought Leader Series on May 12, 2010.

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

Posted In


Enrich Your inbox

with timely, relevant leadership insights

Join more than 15,000 others and subscribe to Linkage Leadership Insights: your resource for leadership development-related topics that matter to you, from the advancement of women leaders to diversity and inclusion and purposeful leadership. Plus, get all the latest Linkage news delivered to your inbox.

Related Posts

All Insights

Start Your Journey

Speak with a Linkage expert today