Change Management is full of concepts and frameworks that are outdated and not based on empirical research.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:

1) Competence
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

2) Relatedness
The need to feel belonging and connectedness to others.

3) Autonomy
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 whatsoever.

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 increases motivation
• 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 engagement

• 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 progression.

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’.

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