‘What’s In It For Me’ (WIIFMe) seems to have originated in marketing and has been adopted in change management (Prosci 2006) as a mantra for selling change.
But does answering the WIIFMe really get people’s support for change? There is lots of high-quality evidence to suggest that for people to adopt proactive change-orientated behaviours they need supportive work environments. Also, an OCM outcome can seem unjust (mass layoffs), but if the process is perceived to be fair, people are more likely to feel positive about the organisation. WIIFMe is highly subjective & we may create expectations that change can meet everyone’s needs. Group performance is negatively affected by goals that maximise individual performance while group-centric goals show positive effects. So, if we want people to be supportive & fair during change, is answering the WIIFMe the best approach? Personality traits that drive proactive behaviours are openness and agreeableness. If words make worlds then WIIFMe language may prime people for selfish, unjust behaviours.
So rather than trying to satisfy WIIFMe maybe we should consider understanding the WIIFUs. This can be used to create a collective mental model of the change and leave individuals to figure out their own WIIFMe.
Since writing this post I have found more evidence that WIIFMe is not something people are strongly motivated by in OCM. In their change readiness model Armenakis et al included personal valence – the perceived personal benefit of the change i.e. WIIFMe. In action research among 18 senior executives they find little support for the WIIFMe (http://www.sbuweb.tcu.edu/mcole/docs/Armenakis%20et%20al.%202007.%20Diagnostic%20Beneifts%20of%205%20Change%20Sentiments.%20JCM..pdf) and in quantitative analysis Holt & Armenakis (2007) find that valence is not a significant factor in determining change readiness. https://www.nccmt.ca/registry/resource/pdf/226.pdf . As Weiner et al 2008 point out there is an issue of using expected outcomes as a measure of change readiness (e.g. ADKAR includes WIIFMe in the Awareness stage) because organisations do not necessarily know what the outcomes are and research suggests people are more interested in the process (procedural justice) rather than the outcomes (distributed justice) at the beginning of a change programme. So focus on the ‘are we capable of change’ rather than the probability of meeting certain outcomes.
‘Overcoming resistance to change (RTC)’ was first mentioned by Coch & French in 1948. Since then, OCM has become fixated with RTC with some stating that ‘The natural reaction to change is resistance’ (ADKAR 2010).
ADKAR identify 8 types of RTC which are all individual. Resistance is generally conceived as an inappropriate behaviour exhibited by individuals – something that needs to be overcome. There is little high-quality evidence to support this view (ten Have 2017). Research shows a weak relationship between RTC & project success & causation is questioned – does change drive resistance or is RTC a result of a general dissatisfaction at work? Rather than being an individual phenomena, RTC was originally conceived by Lewin as a system phenomenon resulting from the way change is managed. From trust in leadership to psychological disposition, studies on RTC suggest there could be up to 40 factors affecting organisational, group or individual RTC which could arise due to the change itself or how & why the change is being implemented.
Rather than viewing people as a barrier to change we should seek to understand the underlying causes of RTC. This way RTC is viewed as key metric that indicates something within the ‘system’ needs attention.
Kulber-Ross (1969) claim that people go through specific stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, acceptance (DABDA model) after the death of a loved one.
To support their claim, Kulber-Ross use a collection of case studies taken from conversations with dying patients. This type of evidence is very low down on the evidence hierarchy. Five empirical tests show little support for the model with one showing that only 11% of people go through the DABDA stages. The only empirical evidence of a ‘change curve’ existing in OCM relies on retrospective case study consisting of 5 employee interviews over 1 day and analysis of the company’s financial results. With no statistical analysis the study attributes a 30% higher than expected financial loss solely down to the software implementation. The focus of the study is a poorly managed project – there is no evidence of any change management being applied.
Believing in DABDA result in ineffective support to people experiencing change because we believe it is a natural response to change rather than a consequence of poor OCM practices. Let’s ditch DABDA & adopt evidence-based approaches that are applicable to OCM and draw on social constructionism such as models of meaning making & CBT.
From Lewin’s ‘emotional stir up’ to Conner’s ‘orchestrating pain’ there is an axiom in OCM that organisations are ‘canyons of complacency’ (Kotter 2012).
But what exactly does a ‘sense of urgency’ mean? Kotter doesn’t seem sure. He states organisations must ‘create a crisis’ (Kotter 2012) but also takes a softer approach stating urgency as ‘business-as-usual not being acceptable’ (Kotter 1995) – two completely different things. If we don’t know how Kotter tested for this claim, we don’t know which end of the urgency spectrum we should aim for. High quality evidence tells us that a perceived threat is only effective if people feel they can do something about it and so creating psychological safety is probably better starting point for initiating change than threats. Research also suggests that scare tactics rarely work and difficult goals lead to unethical behaviour. Kotter’s claim is based on his belief that humans don’t like change (Kotter 1995) – a myth perpetuated in ADKAR’s 2010 curricula where they state ‘The natural reaction to change is resistance’.
As Schein says, if we want people to respond positively to ‘disconfirming information’ we should create a psychologically safe environment and a belief that change is possible.
Rock & Schwartz (2006) seem to be the creators of this claim. They state, ‘change is pain’ – asking people to do things differently creates error signals which induces stress & ‘amygdala hijacks’.
Their evidence used physical pain to induce stress. Other studies cited to support the claim use uncertainty & ambiguity to induce stress in card games. These may be closer to an OCM experience, but they did not induce an ‘amygdala hijack’. The affect stress has on learning is probably more relevant & revealing to OCM. Our brains love surprises & novelty – it increases its repertoire of strategies to deal with future events. This helps us to survive & is called reflective learning. We also learn reflexively, matching our memories to current experiences. But this retrospective type of learning just embeds current habits. Research shows that shock & ‘cognitive overload’ shifts our brains away from reflective to reflexive learning.
So, the evidence shows our brains hate pain not change. If we perpetuate the ‘hate change’ myth, we risk brushing over the nuances of how our people really learn & change. If organisations want to change, they should orchestrate environments that create narrative, minimise cognitive overload & keep our brains curious.
It is claimed that Kurt Lewin, the ‘father of organisational change’ invented the Unfreeze-Change-ReFreeze theory. From Kotter to ADKAR this theory has become the foundation for popular OCM theories.
The source of this claim come from an article published in 1947 (4 months after Lewin’s death) called ‘Frontiers In Group Dynamics’. On page 36 of this article Lewin states ‘We have seen that a planned social change maybe thought of as composed of unfreezing, change of level, and freezing on the new level’. He mentions the freezing effect of decisions (p34 & 37) on forming new habits and unfreezing them (p39). But that is it! A flimsy foundation for such an overriding theory in OCM. There is no book, no peer reviewed article, no empirical evidence (Lewin was a big proponent of testing theoretical propositions). It seems tragic that such a brilliant psychologist is remembered mainly for a rudimentary three-step model when in fact his Field Theory argues that change is a continual process of adaptation, rather than a frozen state.
The Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze is not a cornerstone or an integrator of Lewin’s work & he did not create a 3-step model of OCM. Does this mean that subsequent theories of OCM are built on sand rather than science?
Meaningful work connects employees to everything. It connects them to their own potential (Doing Your Best), to their organisation’s purpose (Doing For Others) to their colleagues (Being With Others) and themselves (Being Your Best).
Meaning is also the why of motivation and motivation is the why of behaviour. So meaning is also the starting point to change ways of working in organisations.
If meaning is really the starting point for understanding all human endeavour, can it be the mediator and integrator of disparate theories in organisational behaviour such as motivation, alignment and engagement?
The search for what makes life meaningful must have started when humans first set their eyes on the stars. In our previous blog we suggested that meaning is the ‘why’ of all human endeavour. It is the process we follow to rationalise our own existence. It is the link between our reality and dreams.