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Switch – Motivate The Elephant

May 27, 2013

SwitchIn Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath argue that to create change, whether on a small or large scale, it’s important to engage the emotions of those who will be making the change.  Using the metaphor of a rider attempting to direct an elephant along a new, unfamiliar path (for more on that, see here), the Heath brothers say it’s necessary to “motivate the elephant” and offer three categories of suggestions for how to do that.

Find the Feeling:  You won’t persuade people to change simply by appealing to the rational, critical side of their minds (for more on that, see here).  For immediate, specific actions, the Heaths argue (and back up their argument with research data) that negative emotions—fear, anger, rage—can work.  “This is your brain on drugs“, LBJ’s 1964 “Daisy” election ad, what to do on a “burning platform” are all examples of appealing to one’s negative emotions.

But most situations requiring change—whether going on a diet, reforming a school, or executing a corporate turnaround—require a sustained effort engaging people’s “creativity and flexibility and ingenuity” and that, say the Heaths, requires engaging people’s positive emotions:  hope, joy, pride, interest.

Shrink the Change:  “A business cliché commans us to ‘raise the bar’. But that’s exactly the wrong instinct if you want to motivate a reluctant Elephant.  You need to lower the bar.

A car wash company that wanted to increase the number of return customers started handing out free loyalty cards.  Every time a customer came back for another car wash, their card got stamped.  After eight stamps, they got a free car wash.  By handing out loyalty cards that required ten stamps but already had a “head start” with first two stamps for “free”, the company nearly doubled the percentage of return customers.  The “ten stamp” customers saw themselves as 20% of the way to their goal rather than at the starting line, and thus were more motivated to “finish the race”.

OneDayAtATimePersuading children to clean their rooms can be exhausting, especially if their rooms haven’t been cleaned in months.  On the other hand, having everyone stop what they’re doing and clean their room while four songs from Stevie Wonder’s greatest hits album are blasting throughout the house isn’t nearly as draining…and the rooms look a lot better, even if they’re not perfectly clean.  Creating small, achievable, visible “wins” at the beginning of a change process creates hope, and hope, the Heaths say, is “Elephant fuel“.

It’s the same approach used by Alcoholics Anonymous in approaching sobriety “one day at a time”.  Staying sober for a lifetime is a daunting, overwhelming, seemingly impossible challenge for many alcoholics.  “One day at a time” seems doable.  And what’s doable once, can be done again.

Grow Your People:  This is a different approach than shrinking the change.  “Grow your people” means appealing to people’s sense of identity, of who they are.  It means drawing on their best instincts and best selves.

StLuciaParrotPaul Butler, a conservation student at North-East London Polytechnic, had studied the St. Lucia parrot—a gorgeous bird “with a vivid turquoise blue face, lime green wings, and a striking red shield on its chest” whose only natural habitat was the island for which it is named.  The St. Lucia parrot was also on the verge of extinction, with only 100 birds still living in 1977.

Because the St. Lucia parrot served no economic purpose, Butler had to make an emotional case for preserving the species.  He had to motivate the elephant.

Working in and with the St. Lucian forestry department, Butler set out to persuade—and succeeding in doing so—the people of St. Lucia that “they were the kind of people who protected their own”.  The wildly successful campaign has since served as a model for species “Pride campaigns” in over 50 countries worldwide.

Engaging people’s emotions, appealing to their better qualities and structuring change so that it begins with small, visible victories that create hope are all ways to “motivate the elephant”, to persuade people to risk the time and effort required to make a change.  It’s the responsibility of leadership to appreciate the importance of people’s emotions, to engage them in working for change, and to use those emotions to help people accomplish things that didn’t think they could.


From → Books, Education, Politics

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  1. Switch – Shape The Path | MassCommons

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