Andrea Olson on the power of context

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The Magazine of the Rotman School of Management UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO




The Disrupted Issue


Andrea Belk Olson, Behavioural Scientist and Author

The Critical Role of Context in Behaviour Change WHETHER IT’S A NEW PROJECT management platform or a complete company restructure, when organizations attempt to implement change, more often than not they are met with resistance. The question is why. The fact is, there is always a portion of people in every organization who want to maintain the status quo, and another portion who are ready and willing to charge ahead with new behaviours. We can take a variety of approaches to get the laggard half on board — whether it’s taking a hard line, amplifying our communications or reinforcing the logic of the decision. And yet, pushback often persists. It is frequently reported that over 70 per cent of all change efforts fail. However, this mythical figure can be traced back to a 1993 book, Re-engineering the Corporation, where authors Michael Hammer and James Champy state, “Our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 to 70 per cent of the organizations that undertake a re-engineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended.” Many studies have been conducted since then — from McKinsey & Co. to the University of Brighton — debunking the 70 per cent failure rate. However, the frequency of our encounters with opposition-to-change reinforces the selffulfilling prophecy that change efforts are likely to fail. This bias towards failure is also wired into our brains. In a recent study from the University of Chicago, researchers Ed O’Brien and Nadav Klein found that in the realm of change initiatives, we wrongly treat successful outcomes as ‘flukes’, and bad results as irrefutable proof that change is extremely difficult. Clearly, in a world where change is sorely needed in so many areas, a shift is required in how we approach — and embrace — change.

Logic Comes in Many Forms

Nobel Laureate Alexis Carrel observed, “Every expert, owing to professional bias, believes that [s]he understands the entire human being, while in reality, [s]he only grasps a tiny part of [them].” This distortion is the foundation of how we misconstrue resistance to change. The fact is, as humans, we have a natural tendency to examine change from our own point of view, position and experience. We want to believe that people are logical, and that given clear and specific information, will draw the same logical conclusion as we have. However, logic is not the sole pillar on which acceptance of an argument is based. Trust, context and our past experience shape and influence our openness to change. And in most cases, leaders fail to effectively understand and address the perceptions of those directly involved and impacted by the change. Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman has found that 95 per cent of our decisions take place unconsciously, originating in the neocortical regions of the brain — where emotions and intuition originate and are shaped by personal experiences, beliefs and impressions. Studies have also shown that it is possible for emotions triggered by one event to spill over and affect another, unrelated situation. This is the realm of ‘behavioural context’, where a hodgepodge of emotion and intuition interlacing creates a partially logic-based resistance to change. This unconscious, intuition-driven mentality follows a logic of its own. It is based on a deeply empirical mental processing system that is capable of effortlessly processing millions of bits of data without getting overwhelmed. Our conscious or logical mind, on the other hand, has a strict bottleneck, because it can only process three or four new pieces of information at a time due to the limitations of our working memory. For example, the Iowa Gambling Task study / 119

Trust, context and our past experience shape and influence our openness to change. highlighted how effective intuition is at effortlessly figuring out the probability of success for maximum gain. Subjects were given an imaginary budget and four stacks of cards. The objective was to win as much money as possible, and to do so, subjects were instructed to draw cards from any of the four decks. The subjects were not aware that the decks had been carefully prepared. Drawing from two of the decks led to consistent wins, while the other two had high payouts but carried hefty punishments. The logical choice was to avoid the risky decks, and after about 50 cards, people stopped drawing from those decks. It wasn’t until the 80th card, however, that people could explain why they were doing this. Logic is slow. But the researchers also tracked the subjects’ anxiety and found that people started to become nervous when reaching for the risky deck after only drawing 10 cards. Intuition is fast. Pattern Making—and Why It Matters

Humans are fundamentally designed to identify patterns. Detecting patterns is an important part of how we learn and make decisions. Hundreds of years ago, we might have heard a rustle in the bushes and discovered it was a lion. Every time after that, we assume it’s a lion, because it’s in our best interest to do so for our survival. If it turns out to be a squirrel, no harm done. Patterns are the bedrock of our intuition. They enable us to quickly assess a new situation using our mental ‘pattern library’ and draw a conclusion with less mental energy. Patterns aren’t simply habits, they are actually ingrained in our information processing. Researchers at Ohio State University conducted a study showing participants multiple series of images that included various combinations of three photos — a hand, a face and a landscape — sometimes in a pattern and sometimes in random order. Participants were placed in an MRI machine that showed what parts of their brain were active as they chose what photo they thought was coming up next. “We could see what parts of the brain were activated when participants figured out there was a pattern — or realized that there was no pattern,” said Ian Krajbich, co-author of the study and Assistant Professor of Psychology and Economics at Ohio State. The problem is, patterns are frequently overlooked as we attempt to introduce change into an organization. Leaders are taught to spend the majority of their time communicating the what, why and how of change. However, 120 / Rotman Management Winter 2022

historical patterns of organizational and leadership behaviour might have established deep-rooted resistance to change. Even if ‘this time is different’, intuition tells people otherwise. Addressing Behavioural Context

Some things we communicate make an immediate impression, while others make an impact later. Communication points may have to gestate for weeks before actually changing the way someone thinks. As leaders, we’ve had this gestation time up front, because we’ve been involved in the identification, assessment and planning of the change effort, every step of the way. Employees, on the other hand, have not. So no matter how carefully crafted, initial communications are often met with skepticism. As indicated, this skepticism is driven by intuition and the perception of personal risk — how the changes will impact the employee’s role, responsibilities, performance expectations and even job security. Well-known entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk once said, “Content is king, but context is god.” Context can be defined as the circumstances that surround an event, statement or idea. Context can clarify meaning and help establish trust by making a message more palatable, and in turn, the speaker more trustworthy, and the opposite is also true. Defining, understanding, and addressing your organization’s behavioural context can enable leaders to break down invisible barriers to change. This means acknowledging those contextual elements that surround the change you want to enact, and framing them to create relatable understanding. An example is a recent commentary from musician Tyler Childers about the current polarized political climate. A native of Kentucky, Childers addresses “white rural listeners” perceptions of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. His six-minute talk doesn’t dive into details on the movement’s significance, nor statistics on the loss of Black lives at the hands of police. Instead, his take is framed in the behavioural context of his audience. He discusses examples of BLM stories and transposes them with people in his own community, allowing listeners to personally relate to those concerns and challenges from their own lens. Childers then segues to heralding the pride of the Appalachian culture, highlighting elements that are inherent to their identity — and how this mirrors the pride that minorities have in their communities:

No matter how carefully crafted, initial communications are often met with skepticism. What if we were to constantly open up our daily paper and see a headline like, “Ashland Community and Technical College Nursing Student Shot in Her Sleep.” How would we react to that? What form of upheaval would that create? I’d venture to say if we were met with this type of daily attack on our own people, we would take action in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. He closes by creating an emotional parallel between his own community’s struggles and the struggles highlighted in the BLM movement:

CULTURAL. Understand the organization’s current and past cultural state, investigating trust in leadership, organizational commitment and employee satisfaction. Do all employees view the culture in the same way, or does it seem to vary across different pockets of the organization? Which front-line and middle managers have the competencies to effectively lead change? These leaders will be essential in mobilizing people for action, supporting others through change, communicating, aligning structures to support the change and assessing the change’s impact — all while keeping the day-to-day business running.

In the end, he creates a relatable, truth-based context as the framework for his case for community attitudinal change.

PERSONAL. Individuals possess varying levels of adaptability, resilience and openness to change. Who are your informal organizational leaders — the early adopters who are also highly respected by their peers? Who are the most stubborn, closed-minded and resistant to change? What has occurred historically to catalyze this behaviour? What are the specific opportunities where employees can use this new opportunity for change to their advantage? When combined, these four elements can be used to architect a story that acknowledges past hard truths, while presenting the new change initiative in a way that all employees can model — and more importantly, relate to.

Defining a Behavioural Context: Four Elements

In closing

So what can the rest of us who feel seemingly outside of these issues do? First, we can use our voting power to get rid of the people who’ve been in power and let this go unnoticed. Chances are the people allowing this to happen are the same people keeping opportunity out of reach for our own communities. We have watched job opportunites shipped out, and drugs shipped in, eating up our communities and leaving our people desperate.

The initial step to designing a successful change initiative is to reflect upon four elements of the behavioural context with respect to change: historical, tonal, cultural and personal. An honest mapping of each of these elements is essential. Let’s take a closer look at each. HISTORICAL. A long history of failed change is not easily forgotten. How is this latest change effort truly different from past efforts? Identify specifics that address historical negative change-effort perceptions. What happened in the past that was perceived as a failure? Has this been defined with brutal honesty? Are there identified commonalities between changes considered successful? TONAL. Examine how change messaging has been presented in the past. Did the message and its tone match the circumstances, or did it conflict with historical patterns (i.e., bait and switch)? After facing a cadre of change programs, employees will more easily identify disingenuous sentiments. Are you using corporate-speak, or relatable, human-to-human communication?

Much like Newton’s first law of Physics — that an object in motion will remain in that state until acted on by an outside force — people tend to continue with established behaviours until there is a significant intervention. When this structure insulates people from essential information, it fosters rumours, suspicions and assumptions, whether accurate or not. This ‘hidden factory’ is every organization’s internal communication grapevine, and the way you communicate change will determine whether the grapevine supports or inhibits your efforts. As indicated herein, communications that address all four areas of the behavioural context will help you do two things: build a healthier grapevine and move the needle on positive change.

Andrea Belk Olson is a behavioural scientist who teaches companies the art and science of customer understanding. She is the CEO of Pragmadik, a visiting lecturer at the University of Iowa, Director of the Hawkeye Start-up Incubator and a TEDx presenter. / 121

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