The Psychology of Change Management

February 6, 2023

Before taking on a change management program within an organisation, the question is – what exactly are you trying to achieve? It can be possible to achieve some levels of change without fundamentally changing the way you do business or altering the culture of your organisation.  Change could be as simple as working with workers to embrace new collaboration practices, or by streamlining work processes.

Often, though, it is necessary to implement fundamental change, change that requires workers to think differently and shift the way they work in completely different directions. This is far more challenging, and requires deep thinking and leadership from the top down.

In their article The Psychology of Change Management, Emily Lawson and Colin Price (McKinseyQuarterly 2003. noted that in order to achieve sustainable change, four conditions were required.

They said the employees will alter their mind-sets only if they see the point of the change and agree with it; the surrounding structures (reward and recognition systems, for example) must be in tune with the new behaviour; employees must have the skills to do what it requires; and finally, they must see people they respect modelling it actively.

Each of these conditions, say Lawson and Price, is realised independently, but together they add up to away of changing the behaviour of people in organisations by changing attitudes about what can and should happen at work.

In other words, workers need to see the benefit of the change enough to support it. If they believe in the purpose, and understand the implications of their role in it, they are more likely to change their behaviour. They are also more likely to change their behaviour when they see people modelling that behaviour. They can’t just be ‘told’ to do it; the collective leadership must show by example and put the approach into practice themselves and positively reinforce the desired behaviours when they see them. Significantly, the behaviour of employees is not just affected by seeing managers or team leaders do it, but also those people around them with whom they identify.

Change needs to be meaningful to workers at every level, and information must flow upstream as well as down. This translates as workers being able to inform those above them about ways to improve and change work processes from the ground up. As the organisational psychologist Chris Argyris showed, people assimilate information more thoroughly if they go on to describe to others how they will apply what they have learned. The reason, in part, is that human beings use different areas of the brain for learning and for teaching.

In summary, sometimes smaller moves are enough to introduce change, but if the only way to achieve a 'higher plane of performance' is to change the way people think and act, some CEO’s may need to think more deeply about changing culture and behaviours to achieve better outcomes.

Thoughts? Has your organisation implemented change? How did you manage it, and how successful was it?

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