Change: Why Purpose Trumps Urgency

The importance of communicating the meaning of changes in organizations is obvious. But why is it not a good idea to emphasize the urgency of change? After all, urgency is the first of John P. Kotter's famous eight steps. And why can it be sometimes even very damaging? Let's look at what happens when change meets people.

Change is tedious. Everyone has experienced that it takes a certain amount of effort to leave familiar and sometimes beloved routines and try something new. And in particular, a certain amount of attention and energy is needed to avoid falling back into the old pattern at the next best opportunity.

The brain is a creature of habit

Why is that so? Our brain prefers well-established processes. And it is lazy! It loves the autopilot mode, in which no great effort is required to get things done. As long as processes work reasonably well and too much monotony does not yet depress our mood, there is no reason to do things differently or leave our familiar surroundings.

In addition, everything new is more or less perceived as a potential threat. In foreign cities or with new colleagues, we behave more alert and cautious than in our familiar surroundings with our old buddies.

On the other hand, there are our needs. In order to meet them, we are ready to face the greatest challenges. Just think of the recognition or even personal satisfaction that someone experiences by participating in an Iron Man. Or by writing a book. There are countless examples. This is also known as motivation, that is, what gets us moving.

Pleasure gain and avoidance of aversion

Besides positive incentives, there are of course also strong negative incentives to escape danger, even if it is only a perceived danger. Our brain cannot differentiate between them. Our reality is always our experienced reality. Evolution has provided us with a beneficial tool for this purpose, the stress reaction. The stress reaction is very old in evolutionary history. It enables our organism to activate all resources in order to escape danger - in former times, for example, a saber-toothed tiger.

However, it is only helpful in specific contexts, in others, it is rather hindering or even dangerous. More on this later.

Let us note: There are positive and negative incentives to change our behavior or a situation. With positive incentives, we move mentally or physically towards something in order to fulfill one or more of our needs (pleasure gain). With negative stimuli, we move away from something to not endanger one or more of our needs (avoidance of aversion). With "towards" our brain reacts to reward, with "away from" to threat.

Individual needs can be very different. David Rock summarizes essential needs that are common to most people in his SCARF model: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. I want to add purpose, because according to Daniel Pink, besides autonomy and ability, purpose is one of these three essential motivating factors.

Urgency generates awareness

Why is it not a good idea to increase the motivation for change over urgency? Let's first look at Kotter's considerations:

Kotter has made the experience that companies often rest on past successes. He calls this complacency and arrogance.

These attitudes prevail in large parts of a company - and especially in top management, no successful change will occur. Change initiatives - if they are started at all - will falter again after a short time.

This is to be counteracted by the emphasis on urgency. This sounds like a very reasonable idea at first. If I notice that my house is on fire, I will immediately do everything I can to save what can be saved. Maximum motivation.

Kotter also mentions a lot of plausible points that promote awareness of the urgency. Among other things, he pleads for honest discussions based on really relevant data, for transparency and direct communication with dissatisfied customers.

However, as an incentive, he also mentions unrealistically high targets that cannot be achieved through routine work. He combines this with threatening to sell or close all business units if they do not become market leaders or number two in their markets within 24 months. Or to make 50% of executive compensation dependent on strict product quality targets.

Attention alone is not enough ... and often even counterproductive

Unfortunately, in most companies, the latter is the rule when it comes to communicating urgency. They still often work with fear and pressure. Fear of job loss if senior managers fail to meet the requirements. Threat of personal consequences if targets are not met. Surely it was not Kotter's intention to focus only on this. But it is the reality in many companies.

Now, the fear of job loss in times of crisis is not unfounded and obvious either. Kotter also points out that visible crises can be enormously helpful in attracting people's attention and raising the level of urgency.

So this fear is already there in times of crisis. If managers intensify it, they will certainly gain attention. Unfortunately, this is not helpful and often even harmful. What are the impacts? What does it lead to?

When we experience a threat, we mentally go to the basement

We react to threats, whether real or perceived, with stress. This means that our organism activates all resources to escape the threat. But these resources are not yet adapted to our modern life. As in primeval times, the stress reaction serves to prepare our body for battle at lightning speed or - if that is hopeless - to get it up the tree as quickly as possible to escape the threat. Complex considerations about the sense and purpose of trees do not help much.

The brain researcher Gerald Hüther makes this clear with his elevator model. When we are under stress, we leave the upper levels, where our complex thinking is located, and go down to the basement, where at the very bottom there is nothing but fight, flight and freeze.

Apart from the negative effects of stress on our body - how helpful can it be in our complex working environment when the ability of thinking and reflection is limited? Quite different from escaping from the saber-toothed tiger, the modern working world requires complex thinking, creativity, and the ability of reflection.

Experiencing purpose activates both attention and complex thinking skills

So instead of adding to this sense of threat, leaders should counteract it. Simply gaining attention is not helpful - we also need an active neocortex, the part of our brain where complex thinking skills are located.

From there: Nothing motivates people more, and in a positive way, than the personal sense experience of an activity or a goal. This triggers a strong "towards" movement. According to scientific studies, experiencing meaning is associated with greater conscientiousness and more commitment. It helps to deal with negative stress more confidently and even increases resilience.

Can the individual experience of purpose be supported?

The question now is, how can the sense of change be conveyed in a way that is connectable to the individual employee? Purpose is an individual construction process. If we experience a change in a way that we do not understand it or if it even collides with our beliefs and values, it will be experienced as a threat, and there will be no positive emotional evaluation.

There is no simple linear-causal answer to this question. It takes more than a few PowerPoint slides or fancy pages on the intranet to convey meaning.

However, it is certainly possible to support and promote the individual construction process.

One prerequisite for this is that the employees' basic need for orientation and security is met. Discussions about upcoming changes must take place in a fear-free environment. The employees must experience psychological security. This means that no one has to fear negative consequences, even if they are "just disparaging looks", if they do not understand a change or have a different opinion. Appreciation and respect in dealing with each other are essential. Managers must demonstrate this.

Co-creating change - what does that mean?

It is even better when changes are designed, introduced, and evaluated together with the employees. However, co-creation does not mean that all employees always come together in a large room and discuss together. This would not work at all in larger companies and would be extremely time-consuming. And virtual rooms would not be a solution either.

The essential aspect is to create space for learning and permeability from the bottom up in the organization. Employees need the opportunity to participate in changes according to their needs, skills, and knowledge. Voluntariness is a crucial point. Some will be intensively involved in the formulation and implementation, others provide valuable feedback. It is essential to have the opportunity to get involved at all levels of the hierarchy. This does not mean setting goals at one level and leaving their implementation to the level below.

The effort is worth it

Changes designed and implemented in this way are characterized by much higher quality since a broader range of detailed knowledge is brought in. There is no better way to avoid misunderstandings than to work together on a project. As long as we only talk about it, we can mean completely different things without realizing it.

Furthermore, changes created in this way meet with a higher acceptance during implementation. If colleagues I have worked well with for a long time are convinced of something, I am more inclined to agree with them rather than if managers only communicate the change.

In the co-creation of change, the individual employee can use his or her own strengths and, in this way, gains appreciation for his or her experience. Working together on changes ensures a positive community experience and an immediate sense of purpose.

At first glance, co-creating changes may appear to be quite an effort. But you also have to see what you gain from it: Higher quality, better acceptance, and more sustainability. Taking into account all the consequential costs of failed changes, the overall effort is even considerably lower.


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