Dan Heath: Want Your Organization to Change? Put Feelings First

When we want people to change, we try to teach them something. We think if my Dad just understood the health complications obesity causes, he’d eat healthier. Or if my teenager just understood the danger of texting & driving, she’d quit it. The problem is this: Knowledge rarely leads to change.

Look at the warnings on cigarette packs. “Cigarettes release carbon monoxide.” Do we think smokers simply don’t know that cigarettes are bad for them? A lack of knowledge isn’t the problem. Or take a company like GM. For years, people were warning its execs that the company was too dependent on big SUVs and trucks, that it was falling behind other companies in innovation. A lack of knowledge wasn’t the problem. And mothers and fathers everywhere try to warn their kids that maybe a giant tattoo isn’t such a good idea. Good luck in that fight, Knowledge.

The same goes for organizational change. When we want our employees to move in a new direction, we try to educate them. We call them together and project a 72-slide PowerPoint. John Kotter, one of the top gurus on organizational change, say that most people think change happens in three stages. You analyze the situation, and you think really hard about the solution, and then you just change. But he says that’s almost never the way change happens. He says that in his experience, it’s a different three-stage process: people SEE something that makes them FEEL something that gives them the fire to CHANGE. SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

So if you want people to change, you’ve got to put feeling first. Back to those cigarette packs. In some countries, they do a better job tapping into emotion. In Italy, their packs say, Smoking kills. In Canada, they do even better. Check out this photo. If you’re a 16-year-old, it may seem cool to smoke, but I’ll tell you what’s not cool: rotting yellow teeth. That hits you in the gut. Or check out this ad: Smoking causes impotence. That hits you somewhere else.

If you want your colleagues to change, start thinking about how you can get them to feel something. Maybe you bring them face-to-face with customers who are underserved right now, and that sparks their empathy. Maybe you force them to confront how much better your competitors’ products are, and that makes them angry and competitive. Just don’t think your job is done after you’ve shared some knowledge.

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  • Steve Tla MacRae

    I'm a high school teacher. I'm an advocate for "collecting skills" as promoted by Tony Wagner ("Seven Survival Skills"). Dan Heath proposes that we teachers could use this three-step process to imbue our students with the will to make changes... not just the motivation, but the actual energy to change. See it, so we can feel it, so we can get the energy that we need to make a change. I'm passing this article around to my colleagues, encouraging them to make changes in their procedures, and to bring more images into the classroom.