Have you ever gotten in your car, driven to work, found a parking spot, sat at your desk, and wondered: How did I get here? If you ever experienced this, you were probably on automatic pilot, unconscious of what you were doing because you do it so often.

Now let’s say you got in your car, started to drive, and suddenly a detour took you far out of your way. What happened then? Perhaps you began to worry about missing an important morning meeting. Probably, you drove with heightened awareness, your grip tightening on the steering wheel. And maybe you arrived at the office grouchy, immediately complaining to your co-workers about those so-and-sos who messed up traffic during rush hour.

This is how change is usually led, and followed, in organizations. Leaders disrupt what people have been doing well for a long time by imposing new requirements. These ‘detours’ make people uncomfortable, anxious, and less confident. And when employees grouse about the changes, they are viewed as resistant, contributing to a cycle of mistrust and cynicism.

It does not have to be this way. We can learn to lead change differently, with better results. But to apply these lessons we must first heed Peter Senge’s wisdom, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” So with the next few posts I’ll highlight how you can lead change differently as food for thought for leading change in the year ahead.

Build purpose & pride

Patients skip about 5.5 million outpatient hospital appointments in the United Kingdom each year (the UK’s health care system is nationalized). People aren’t getting the care they need, while hospital costs are escalating unnecessarily.

Britain’s Behavioural Insights Team, a tiny government agency, recently tried to tackle the problem. They experimented with seven different types of messages designed to remind patients of their appointments.

Of the seven, the most effective reminder pointed out the cost of a missed appointment to the National Health Service (about $200 per appointment), without referencing the cost to the patient. What an interesting finding: the email that indicated peoples’ own self-interest was less effective at reducing missed appointments than the one appealing to the larger purpose of saving money for the NHS.

This simple, yet counter-intuitive language change led to a 25% reduction in missed appointments at no extra cost. The financial and health benefit impacts are tremendous. But why did this message stick when others didn’t?

The message stuck because it appealed to peoples’ pride in their beloved NHS rather than to their narrow self-interest (Brits love the NHS, and love to complain about it too). Read about it in this article from behaviouralinsights.co.uk 

The old change leadership platitude that you need to identify “what’s in it for me” is up for revision. Leaders who answer what’s in it for we” will get better results, particularly in an age where we crave a connection to a purpose larger than ourselves.

Align the change to the culture

Christopher Charles, a Canadian researcher, recently studied the horrific problem of premature births and obstetrical hemorrhaging with Asian mothers. The chief cause of the calamity is iron deficiency anemia. And the problem is widespread. For instance, anemia affects 44% of the population in Cambodia, resulting in GDP loss of $70 million annually.

It is well known that cast iron cookware transmits iron into food, but this solution was too expensive for people most at risk. So Charles developed a small iron brick that when boiled in water increases peoples’ iron intake. Despite the benefits, most people rejected the iron ingots. After all, who wants to drop a metal brick in their pot as part of preparing supper?

So Charles had to change his approach to be successful. The breakthrough came when he consulted with elders of several villages. They described a species of fish that was deemed a symbol of good luck. Charles redesigned the ingot into the shape of the fish, which caught on throughout the region. This led to significant reductions in anemia, particularly in remote villages. Villagers who use the ‘lucky iron fish’ obtain 77% of their daily-recommended dietary iron.

A social enterprise company luckyironfish.com now distributes the ingots across the developing world, with enormous impact. As Charles said, “You can have the best treatment in the world, but if people won’t use it, it won’t matter.”

Neither of these change strategies relied on appeals to self-interest or fear to get people to change. They relied on pride and cultural alignment to help people embrace behaviors they long resisted, with tremendous effects. The lesson here: when leading change, it is crucial to identify strategies that appeal to positive emotions. Change initiatives that resonate with people work well; shapeless iron bricks just go plop.