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How to Motivate Others to Change

Dear Crucial Skills,

When I tell my colleagues it’s time to improve our effectiveness, they get uptight about being told why they’re wrong and what to fix. It seems like they’re content to let standards slacken and inefficiencies run wild as long as they don’t have to hear about how much better we could be doing. How can I make improvement sound “cool” so my colleagues don’t feel like I’m forcing them to change?


Dear Changeable,

If we could solve this common problem, think of the benefits we’d share. Imagine a department, an organization, or a country where everyone shared a passion for improvement. We’d see immediate advances in creativity, productivity, and competitiveness and I bet we’d see huge gains in engagement and satisfaction as well. So, how do we get there?

It will take more than a carefully worded conversation to solve this problem. In fact, if we think better words are all we need, then we’ve failed before we’ve begun. This challenge is ideal for an Influencer approach.

What your workforce needs is a passion for making things better and the knowledge that they can get it done. Neither of these is advanced through verbal persuasion alone. Changing hearts and minds requires more than data dumps, lectures, sermons, and rants.

I’ll begin with some first steps you might take to get this process going and then I’ll share a few examples from organizations that have made continuous improvement a central value within their culture.

1.  Actions you can take in the short term.

As an individual contributor seeking to influence your colleagues, it’s important to not try and use authority you don’t have. Instead of telling people what they should do, create situations that allow them to discover what they should do. Here are a few ideas.

Social Motivation. Create direct experiences with customers. Your colleagues might not want to listen to you, but nothing is more motivating than getting direct feedback from your customers—either internal or external. Find a way for customers to visit. They will speak the truth to your colleagues in ways you can’t.
Structural Motivation. You think your group is full of slack and inefficiencies, but your colleagues may not see it. So, find a way to make performance more public. Focus on the two or three metrics everyone sees as important and post them where everyone can see. A chart on the wall is objective so it’s hard to deny.
Social Motivation. Ask your colleagues to set an improvement goal based on what their customers want and need. Don’t worry whether it’s higher or lower than the goal you would set. It’s more important that they have a goal they can all accept. Next, have your colleagues—not you—evaluate their progress. This gives your colleagues a chance to motivate each other.
Personal Ability. When individuals—or the entire group—fail to achieve their goal, steer them away from casting blame. Instead, encourage them to focus on solutions. Get them to brainstorm ideas for improvement.
Structural Ability. Set up mini experiments to test your colleagues’ ideas. These should be low-risk tests you can complete in a day or two. Make sure others are involved in the testing and evaluating process. Don’t let this become your project. Use it to make your colleagues look good.

These are tactics you can implement on your own, even if you’re not a manager. Below, I’ll suggest a more intensive approach that requires management support.

2.  Actions your organization can take in the long term.

We’ve worked with several organizations that put continuous improvement at the center of their culture. Each has taken its unique path, but the behaviors they nurture—the vital behaviors—are remarkably similar. For an excellent description of this change-oriented culture, see Steven Spear’s HBR article, Fixing Health Care from the Inside, Today.

Focus on Vital Behaviors

  • Scientist and the subject. Employees become scientists as well as subjects. They design their work to be a series of ongoing experiments.
  • Trial and error. People use frequent, brief, low-cost, trials—with data—to address both problems and opportunities.
  • Hold each other accountable. People hold each other accountable for continuous improvement—trying new ideas every week or month.

Driving these vital behaviors into a culture requires a concerted effort across the organization. This approach should be guided by the Six Sources of Influence. I’ll suggest a few tactics.

Personal Motivation. Use direct and vicarious experience to create a passion for improvement. Make sure every employee has a line-of-sight relationship with his or her customers. For example, an insurance company took jobs that had been organized around forms: “I’m the specialist on form 35c.” and reorganized them around people: “I’m the resource person for all of our agents in Denver.”

Have employees visit best-in-class companies—both within their industry and beyond—to learn what’s possible and to gather ideas to test. A mining company takes front-line supervisors to a best-in-class steel mill to get ideas for improving workplace safety.

Look for positive deviants—groups within their own firm that have achieved extraordinary results without extraordinary resources—and either visit them or invite them to visit. Surgeons compare surgical outcomes and then travel to learn from the best.

Personal Ability. Use training, coaching, and deliberate practice to help everyone become a scientist at their job. Teach people how to lead brief, low-risk, short cycle time experiments. A pharmaceutical firm trains people in Lean Six Sigma, and has them design experiments that take no more than two days.

Learn by doing. Every week, each department should design and conduct a trial that tests an improvement idea. A hospital asks every unit to complete one experiment per week.

Build confidence. As teams make progress, they’ll discover they have far more control over their work process and work environment than they ever realized. When they reach this insight, their progress and morale will surge.

Social Motivation & Ability. Have employees present their experiments to others in the organization using poster sessions and twenty-minute presentations. A computer chip manufacturer has its entire organization, including senior leaders, attend these improvement fairs. Make sure everyone participates in designing, testing, and evaluating improvement experiments. Each experiment should be a team endeavor.

These are just a few examples from three of the six sources of influence. For the best results, brainstorm strategies in all six sources to bring about the change you desire. Some of these actions require more formal authority than you may have, but I hope they stimulate your thinking. Let me know how it goes.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

5 thoughts on “How to Motivate Others to Change”

  1. Bruce Wilkinson

    We have introduced a process improvement methodology called, “Lean,” into our organization. It has a toolset for looking at the work and finding waste in the processes. By classifying the different types of waste and introducing tactics for finding it (time and motion, inventory, waiting), and some principles (flow, just in time, visual cues) for reducing it, this methodology can be readily understood and applied. The ultimate goal of “Lean” is to get everyone thinking critically about waste and to give them the tools to eliminate it. The focus is on the process–not the people. So, there is no explicit or implicit assignment of blame for how the waste was introduced. It is just a way of taking a naive look at a process with the goal of finding waste and eliminating it.

  2. David Maxfield

    Yes, Bruce. Your comment is right on target. Systems like Lean, Six Sigma, and the Toyota Method are excellent ways to take the focus off of the “people” and put it on the “system” where it belongs. Giving people a powerful tool that helps them improve their work can be very motivating. Thanks!

  3. Andrea Gordon

    Great post, David. I agree that the best way to influence others to change is to show that you’re motivated and willing to take the initiative to change too. Being active in the process makes others feel more comfortable instead of feeling targeted or criticized. Thanks for the insights!

  4. Craig Gauvreau

    Identify and brag about what is working. We were certain that there were many near miss incidents on our work site that were not getting reported. Near miss cases are often considered negitive. While we identified the safe guards that did not work or did not work as intended, in our presentations and reports, we started to identify the safe guards in place that did work that kept the incidents as near miss & not actual incidents in that no one was injured or no equipment was damage. This has created a bit of social motivation. We obtain better information and can manage the site with more effective safety for the people. We are still working on improving the reporting but there has been great improvements in regards to the reporting by recognizing what is also working well.

  5. Ruzanne

    @Bruce Wilkinson

    You’re right. Just wanted you to know that 🙂

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