Change Management is full of concepts and frameworks that are outdated and not based
on empirical research. It seems that in the business world we are very comfortable with
concepts that sound like they make sense intuitively. If the concept is simple and
interesting then we’re in. We don’t require them to have any scientific proof and research
is often not required.
Let’s take one example. The Kubler-Ross model is one of the most popular models that
outlines the 5 stages of grief by a psychiatrist from the book ‘On Death and Dying’. The 5
stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, there is a lack
of empirical research supporting these 5 stages, and in fact research suggests other
expressions of grief.
Moreover, we’ve somehow applied this model to change management assuming that it is
relevant. Whilst dying is a change process, this context cannot be generalised across all
other changes such as implementing a new system, a new product or a new policy.
Moreover, there is no research supporting this. In fact, we all know that there are lots of
people who do not go through these phases during lots of change processes. And certainly
it would be hard to imagine someone going through these phases after buying a new
desirable iPhone from a previous older model?
Now, if there are so many popular concepts that are not backed up by research what
should we use that is based on proven evidence? Self determination theory (SDT) by
Edward Deci and Richard Bryan should be one that the change management community
adopt. It is a broad-based theory about human motivation focuses on people’s inherent
growth tendencies and our innate psychological needs. There has been significant
research supporting this theory since the 1970s and more research is underway.
What is the self determination theory about motivation?
The theory states that there are 3 innate human needs that if met will provide motivation,
motivation to undertake tasks, to develop and to undergo change. These 3 elements are:
The experience of mastery and being effective at ones activity. When people feel
that they have the skills required to be successful they are much more likely to take
on tasks that will help them achieve their goals
The need to feel belonging and connectedness to others.
The feeling of choice and control over one’s focus.
Each of the three elements contributes to motivation, by having the right level of skills and
confidence, by wanting to be connected to others and by feeling in control over one’s
focus or task.
Some implications of these 3 elements on how we manage change include:
1) Simply conducting training may not address someone’s level of competence. The
outcome is that they need to feel confident. This means that there should be a
holistic focus on a range of learning interventions to promote and support
confidence, such as managerial acknowledgement, catering to individual learning
styles, supportive learning environment/community after training session, etc.
2) Change activities should not be implemented for individuals in isolation to others.
For example, if elearning is utilised, the change approach should design to provide
visibility on how others are undergoing the change process, where they are share
their experiences. This is why change champions are so important since effective
champions promote and build a supportive community
3) Especially for more significant changes, it is important to design into the change
process a sense of autonomy for those impacted. This may seem contradictory to
how most company implement change, i.e. one that is characterised by one common
set of activities for all employees. What this important to emphasise according to
SDT is to build in employee involvement so that they feel that they are shaping and
developing the change versus being negatively impacted by it with no choice
There are 2 types of motivations:
1) Controlled Motivation
• “The carrot and the stick” approach to motivating someone
• Seduced into the behaviour
• Coerced into the behaviour, often with the threat of punishment
• Experience of tension and anxiety
Employees that work in a controlled motivation environment usually have negative
emotions and their confidence and well-being also suffer. Also, in this environment
employees usually take the shortest path to reach the desired outcome. This may or may
not have the best consequences for the company. If the company is trying to stipulate a
set of behaviours, these may be avoided or blind-sighted to get to the ultimate ‘measure’.
2) Autonomous motivation:
• Experience of volition and choice about the work that one is doing
• If the person enjoys the work and finds it interesting, then the autonomous
motivation level increases
• If the values of the work is consistent with the values of the individual this also
• If the person endorses the work, then he or she will also be more motivated to
undertake the work
Organisations want more autonomous individuals that are aligned their work. Why?
Because research has found that autonomous workers are:
• More creative
• Better problem solvers and be able to think outside of the box
• Better performance
• More positive emotions
• Better psychological and physical wellbeing
So how do we promote a change environment that develops autonomous workers?
• Take the perspectives of the workers and their mindset, and be clear around what
moves them, what bugs them, what they get excited or bored about, their core
values and interests, etc.
• Providing them with choice and the ability to participate in the change and the
decision-making process where possible. This will encourage their buy-in and
• Support them with exploring different ideas and trying new ways of approaching the
work in a different way. This approach is also very consistent with agile ways of
working, encouraging innovation and ‘safe to fail’ environment
• Encouraging them to be self-starters and self-initiated
• Provide them with a strong and meaningful rationale of the ‘why’ of the purpose of
the change so that they understand the reasons behind the change
Edward Deci goes on further to state “Don’t ask how you can motivate others, ask how you
can create the conditions for them to motivate themselves”.
From activity driven to design-driven
One of the biggest implication from SDT is that next time you design your change
intervention you should focus away from key standard change management activities such
as communications and training. Instead, focus on creating and designing the
environment from which people can motivate themselves.
This is a fundamental shift for a lot of change practitioners and requires a depth of
understanding about how the organisation functions and what will move its dial. It is not
about implementing 1 or 2 core activities, it is about implementing a range of
interventions to shape the environment to support change.
Some practical ways in which you can design an environment to promote change
1) Workshops for participants to brainstorm and discuss ways in which they can
undergo the change journey
2) Share stories of how other employees have experienced through change personally
Use different mediums in which to communicate the change, to appeal to different
people preferences (e.g. video, online, face to face, posters, etc.)
3) Leverage key influencers to influence the community
Provide sandbox or other platforms (such as online platform, showcase room, etc.)
from which employees may experience and play with the new environment
4) Break up the change journey into small steps and milestones and acknowledge each
5) Encourage community discussions about the change
The challenge in building change environments
When we start to design a holistic environment for change, most often than not we are
designing this for a set of changes and not just one initiative. In this complex, continuous
changing environment, we need to be able to keep tab on what the change environment
looks like and how it is evolving amongst the various change initiatives.
As different change environment interventions ramp up, we need to be able to visualise
how these interventions and activities are impacting the employees and their
environment. This includes being able to visualise the pace, scale, nature, and multiplicity
of the changes across various parts of the organisation. Using data visualisation tools such
as The Change Compass is valuable for organisations within agile environments.
Using the insights and core concepts from the self determination theory will serve
significant value for the change management community. Not only are its concepts well-
researched and proven by research, there is a range of directly applicable implications for
the change practitioner. No longer do we have to work with frameworks that are
fashionable but lack the rigour of empirical research. The challenge now is how we adopt
this within our change approach and ‘change the way we approach change’.