Convincing People To Change

Every so often I get a call from a potential client asking me if I can “convince people that they need to change.”  The short answer is no.  Here’s the long answer . . .

I think we often confuse convincing people that change is needed with convincing people to accept a specific change. 

Convincing people that change is needed is a pivotal first step in any attempt to lead change.  John Kotter calls this step “creating a sense of urgency.”  Rick Maurer refers to it as “making a compelling case for change.” 

There are certainly many things that leaders can do to convince people that change is needed. Kotter and Maurer both have books on the subject.  In addition, in his book, The Leadership Engine, Michigan business professor Noel Tichy provides a great list of suggestions, including communicating about:

  • External threats and opportunities
  • Technologies which are causing quantum changes in your business
  • Customers or suppliers which are concentrating or integrating
  • Competitors which are growing in strength and aggressiveness

Unfortunately, many leaders I speak with want to skip step #1 and move right on to convincing people that the specific solution they have in mind is the right one and that it should be accepted, embraced, and implemented with no questions and no complaints.   

Convincing people that change is needed and convincing people that your solution should be accepted are two dramatically different intentions.  Consider the example of wanting to convince your spouse to go on a vegetarian diet.  You’ll have a much harder time and encounter far more resistance if you announce a “no meat in the house” policy out of the blue than you will if talk to your spouse first about how he/she feels about both of your health, weight, eating habits, etc. 

The same idea holds true for change inside an organization.  Before you charge ahead with attempting to get people on board with the specifics of your new compensation approach, start with educating people about why change is needed in the first place.  Is your company’s current approach outdated?  Are you losing key employees to your competitors?

So, if you want to convince people to change – focus first on conveying the context for change, why your organization needs to adapt, and how change will help you remain competitive.  There are lots of great examples and quotes out there that will help you support your point – like this one from Larry Bossidy, former Chairman and CEO of AlliedSignal:

“Show me a great company, and I’ll show you one that has radically changed itself and is looking forward to the opportunity to do so again.”

And certainly, we change consultants can help you create and communicate messages that help people see a need for change.  Just remember, helping people move to a state of being open to change is different from convincing people that your solution is the answer.  The best way to get to acceptance of a specific solution is still the active involvement of people in coming up with the answer together. For more on that topic, check out my blog post: Want Buy-In? Roll Out Imperfect Plans.


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