Virtually every leader wishes they had the power to inspire people to change. That’s because every leader has experienced times when they have identified a change that had to be made, devised a great strategy for making it happen, but then struggled to get people moving in the new direction.
The problem is that most leaders believe that in order to inspire other people, they must exude the uncommon charisma of someone like Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr., or John F. Kennedy. Those inspiring examples don’t feel especially relevant or attainable to leaders who are not trying to build the first iPhone, end racial segregation, or send someone to the moon. What if you’re just trying to change the way your people handle loans, manage a supply chain, or interact with customers?
There is a simpler way to inspire change. In recent years, social scientists led
Todd Thrash have demystified the phenomenon of inspiration. At its core, inspiration is what happens when a person feels stimulated to bring some new idea to life after becoming spontaneously aware of new possibilities. Bold visions of greatness and charismatic speeches are certainly one way to elicit that feeling. But a few years ago, we stumbled onto another way.
In a series of field experiments, my colleagues and I at Decision Pulse asked groups of managers across four different companies to anonymously submit changes they had decided to make in response to a larger change initiative. We then asked the managers in each group to view the list of decisions made by their colleagues, and to vote for the decision that had the biggest impact at their respective companies. After our experiments, a clear pattern emerged among the winning decisions. See if you can spot the winner in this set of choices below from managers at a health insurance company.
Decision A: “I dealt with an employee relations issue through direct coaching and performance management vs. letting that customer service manager ignore the issue.”
Decision B: “I cut out layers of security for the new customer portal because it would make it slower for customers to access.”
Decision C: “I chose to market the company as the leader of good health not just for the current member, but for everyone.”
All three decisions exemplify sound management and logical thinking. But decision B overwhelmingly received the most votes from other managers. In fact, not one of the 19 peer raters in this experiment voted for Decision A or Decision C. What made Decision B so special?
Decision B contained what I call a “missing puzzle piece.” In order to make sense of the world around us, our brains treat every situation like it’s a puzzle that must be assembled. When we piece together a puzzle for “how a microwave works” or “what techie guys do,” our brains store that puzzle in long-term memory. But these puzzles are fragile. When something unexpected happens, say, if a microwave suddenly makes food colder instead of hotter, or a tech geek intentionally removes layers of data security just to enhance the customer experience, our brain senses that something isn’t right. The microwave puzzle or the techie guy puzzle is suddenly missing a corner piece.
What happened next is the interesting part. A part of our brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) notifies us of the error. Not surprisingly, this error makes us uncomfortable. To protect us from that icky feeling that part of our world no longer makes sense, our brains have developed an instinctive defense mechanism. Instead of trying to replace the missing piece in the “techie guy” puzzle, our brains compensate by reassembling new, unrelated puzzles.
Researchers Travis Proulx and Stephen Heine have shown repeatedly that even tiny disruptions to a relatively unimportant puzzle like “how a microwave works,” can stimulate our brain’s ability to spot new patterns and see new possibilities in other areas. For example, when your microwave unexpectedly chills food instead of heating it, it can inspire a revelation about your marriage or your job or even your political views.
What Proulx and Heine discovered is that a missing puzzle piece not only makes us more motivated to see new possibilities, it makes us more skilled at seeing new connections and possibilities. (Perhaps that’s why periods of intense creativity occur so often during the most tumultuous periods of an artist’s life?)
This phenomenon is exactly what we saw in our field studies. Prior to the first round of voting on their peers’ decisions, many managers said something like “I don’t really see anything I can change. I’m just in finance,” or “I’m out in the field, and that’s more of a corporate change so…” In other words “I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
But then after seeing the techie guy reduce data security or discovering that a plant manager deprioritized plant productivity improvements just to increase supply chain efficiency, the other managers in the group suddenly became aware of new possibilities for change in their own areas of work.
Over the next two rounds of experiments, almost all of the other managers in each group began making legitimate and creative change decisions. They saw new possibilities and started acting on them. Put simply, they were inspired to change.
That inspiration didn’t come from big, hairy, audacious goals, lofty visions of the future, charismatic speeches, or demonstrations of their leaders’ innate genius or passion. All that it required was an awareness of someone else’s unexpected decision to cut back on an old thing in order to do a new thing. That is something every manager in every situation is capable of doing.
A decision to cancel football for a year is how one high school principal inspired a Texas town to get creative about saving its school. The decision to temporarily remove breakfast sandwiches from Starbucks stores is how Howard Schultz inspired employees to refocus on coffee. A decision to kill the cutting edge “Newton” PDA in 1996 is how Steve Jobs inspired Apple’s engineers to begin thinking differently on their way to one of the most innovative product development runs in history.
What this all means is that change agents don’t have to be brilliant or charismatic in order to inspire change. If you can make a decision, you can inspire change.