When Understanding “Why” Might Not Matter in Change Management

Many models of organizational change management assume that people overcome resistance to change when they are given sufficient information that they use, at some point, to purposefully and deliberately evaluate the change. Once they have carefully examined the change–what’s in it for me, what does the change imply for my work, why is the business doing this, what is the burning platform, what risks will we incur by not doing this–individuals see the merits of the change, which leads to a psychological shift to support the change more openly and willingly. The assumptions of this general pattern of deliberate evaluation can be seen in Kotter’s 8 steps, the Prosci ADKAR model, and Lewin’s Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model.

However, while information and deliberate evaluation of a change is undoubtedly essential for many individuals, it may not be essential for all individuals. Many individuals, in fact, may be persuaded to adopt the change based on factors that live largely outside of the merits of the change itself. In other words, many people may get on board with a change for reasons that have little to nothing to do with the actual change itself. By acknowledging corporate change as a persuasive endeavor, we can identify new insights from persuasion research to improve how changes are carried out in organizations.

Two Paths to Persuasion

The Heuristic-Systematic Model (HSM) of persuasion developed by Shelly Chaiken in the mid-1980’s (and the similar Elaboration Likelihood Model by Petty and Cacioppo) proposed that people evaluate persuasive messages through one of two channels. The systematic method for processing persuasive messages involves careful deliberation and thorough evaluation of a message. When an individual has adequate time, capacity, or the pressing need to evaluate a message, they will do so carefully and deliberately. In organizational change, the systematic route of persuasion assumes that an individual learns about a change—from a leader, a white-paper, an intranet article, a video, or an email—and carefully processes the information, followed by making a conscious decision to support or not support the proposed change.

However, when an individual lacks adequate time, capacity, or the need to give careful attention to the message, or if the message lacks perceived relevance, they will rely on cognitive short-cuts to decide how they will respond to a change. These short-cuts, or rules-of-thumb, are called heuristics. The heuristic methodfor processing persuasive messages assumes that individuals are psychologically busy and have a lot of priorities competing for their cognitive attention at any given time—ranging from higher priority business items to relationship matters, to an upcoming vacation, to a broken dishwasher, and so on. To manage the mental demands of life, people will often simplify their mental load by making decisions based on default cognitive short-cuts or rules-of-thumb. While these short-cuts, or heuristics, are not fail-safe, they are generally time-tested and trusted, and have helped them make decisions in the past with a reasonably high success rate. By applying these mental short-cuts, they are able to make multiple decisions at a relatively minor psychological cost, with an acceptable rate of risk that the decision will result in success.

Executive leaders and senior and middle managers, it seems, are particularly inclined to use heuristic processing when they sponsor or consider changes that are not their top priorities. Given their roles, they carry large demands on their shoulders. They are expected to oversee and make decisions for a wide breadth of items of varying complexity. Regardless of their leadership skills or how bright they may be, however, they cannot be experts in every decision laid before them. They are busy people. The depth of attention they are expected or able to give is the attention they cannot reasonably provide. As a result, they may tend to focus on their few priorities, and default to heuristics for everything else.

6 Mental Short-Cuts

In his 2001 book “Influence: Science and Practice,” Robert Cialdini proposed six research-based heuristics people use when they don’t have sufficient time or cognitive resources to carefully evaluate a matter. These six principles of persuasion provide additional considerations for change practitioners. While the key messages around a change must still be managed closely, these peripheral cues and messages can also be leveraged to increase the likelihood of wider change adoption. I summarize Cialdini’s principles in the acronym SPARCLeS.

Social Proof (SP) is the rule-of-thumb whereby people look to others around them to determine how they should respond. It speaks to social rules of conformity and the “safety-in-numbers” theory. This is the logic behind user reviews: “If that many people give it a high rating, it must be a great product.”

In change management, many individuals make a decision to support a change based on what others around them are doing. They look to their teams, a trusted colleague, or peers to make their decisions to support a change. If they haven’t had time to review a change proposal, or were distracted by a pressing issue during a change presentation, they are likely to scan the social environment to see what others are doing—not the merits of the change itself—and then decide accordingly. They take the temperature of the room, and then move forward trusting in “the wisdom of the crowds.”

To leverage the heuristic of social proof, change practitioners can:

  • Use “everybody else is doing it” language when it can be done so ethically and honestly
  • Arrange opportunities for those who are resistant or undecided to meet with multiple change supporters
  • Select and involve influential stakeholders and opinion leaders from all levels of the organization
  • Highlight stories that reflect broad-based acceptance of the change
  • Present data that shows increasing acceptance and adoption

Authority (A) is the rule-of-thumb whereby people are influenced due to the authority of the person sending the message. In 1959, French and Raven identified five types of authority an individual or institution may possess: Attractive authority comes by having personal attributes that draw others to follow; Expert authority comes by perceived subject matter expertise; Reward authority is maintained by being able to give valued resources to others; Coercive authority is maintained by being able to take valued resources from others; and Position authority is granted by virtue of a title. With each type of authority, individuals may be persuaded by the authority backing the message, and not the message itself.

The influence of authority is, at times, disturbingly strong. The Stanley Milgram studies of the 1960’s showed that nearly 2 out of 3 every-day people followed the directions of an authoritative researcher to the point of administering (what they supposed to be) 450-volt lethal shocks to a confederate research participant. Similar deference to authority has been shown to doctors and police officers, and can be seen in the advertising world where actors and athletes sell their star power to promote watches, underwear, athletic apparel, and more.

In change management, authority is typically connected to executive sponsors, direct managers, or industry experts (often times consultants) representing the need to change. While some people will be influenced by what the authority figures actually said, many will be influenced simply because of who said it. “Ifshe said it, it must be a good thing.” People may not understand why a change is happening, but will still go along with it out of obedience to the authority figure.

To leverage the authority heuristic, change practitioners can:

  • Involve executive sponsors regularly and actively
  • Regularly emphasize that executive sponsors support the change
  • Involve direct managers and supervisors
  • Use consultants or other subject matter experts to validate the need for change
  • Identify stakeholders with “star status” or other types of authority among peers to promote the change
  • Bring in respected, authoritative outsiders who will voice support for the change

Reciprocity (R) is grandma’s short-cut rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Social interactions are built largely on this give-and-take, transactional understanding. I do this for you, and you in turn do that for me. People generally don’t want to break this social rule out of fear that they may be labeled a leach, a taker, a moocher, or a selfish freeloader looking out for his own best interest. Because the rule is so well-established in social circles—and the reason it matters to persuasive efforts—it can be evoked even when it wasn’t requested. For example, if a neighbor brings a dessert, individuals often feel obligated to send a dessert in return. One “I love you” prompts another “I love you,” or an awkward moment if it doesn’t follow. Marketers use this principle often: they send “free” personalized address labels; they give free samples, or offer a complimentary meal or hotel stay. If you’ve ever stopped at a traffic light and had a person quickly wash your windows, and then extend their hand to you, you’ve experienced reciprocity. Likewise, if you’ve seen panhandlers’ signs promoting their veteran status, you know what the obligation to reciprocate feels like. Even though you didn’t ask for the service, the expectation behind each of these offers is always to leverage reciprocity and gain something in return.

In change management, reciprocity is leveraged wherever a potential exchange of resources exists, including the commodity of commitment. It’s seen in spoken and unspoken appeals to “support your change, if you’ll support mine.” It’s noticed when change practitioners elicit buy-in to the change (what the organization gets) in exchange for participation in the course of the change (what the individual gets). It’s at the heart of the WIIFM (“what’s in it for me “), where individuals evaluate if what you’ve told me I will get is worth what I will be expected to give in return. And, in basic economic terms, it’s at the core of wages for doing a specific job, whether as incentives (more money if you support this) or punishment (demotion or termination if you don’t support this).

To leverage the heuristic of reciprocity, change practitioners may consider the following:

  • Communicate the WIIFM to employees with specific propositions that will increase the perceived value employees receive for making the change
  • Highlight the total value of employees’ employment, followed by the request to support the change
  • Reward supportive behaviors
  • Involve stakeholders in guiding and developing the change when possible

Commitment (C) is the rule-of-thumb that leverages an individual’s innate desire to behave consistently. In its simplest form, once we have committed to do something, we want to follow through. If we don’t follow through, we experience what Leon Festinger in the mid 1950’s called cognitive dissonance, or a psychological state of discomfort when our actions don’t align with our beliefs. And, if we break our commitments, we experience the social consequence of being labeled flaky, untrustworthy, or undependable. From a persuasive perspective, commitment is leveraged when individuals are first asked to make—or at least be willing to make—an active or public commitment, followed by the request to take action on that commitment. Once an individual has said “yes” to a smaller request, it becomes more difficult to say “no” to subsequent requests related to the same matter.

To leverage the commitment heuristic, change practitioners may consider the following:

  • Seek individuals’ commitment to the change prior to the change actually being made (“If we were to make this change, would you support it?”), rather than waiting to build commitment when the change is in flight.
  • Remind individuals of the organization’s vision and ideals that likely attracted employees in the first place, and then show them how the current change is an extension of those ideals.
  • Encourage key stakeholders and sponsors to actively, visibly, and publicly express their support of the change. In addition to influencing those impacted by the change, this builds their commitment and keeps themengaged in the change.
  • Provide opportunities for those impacted by the change to publicly express their support of the change, such as a quote in a company newsletter or an “I’m All In” campaign.

The fifth heuristic is Liking (L). Its close cousin is similarity. People like others who are like them. And, when they like them, they tend to trust them more and follow their lead. “You’re from Boston? No way, I’m from Boston, too!” “You’re into Star Wars? Me, too.” “You graduated from the University of Texas at Austin! Hook ’em! I love you already!” Liking, which is often achieved through perceived likeness, promotes the belief that if one person is similar in one attribute, they are likely to be similar in other attributes, and are therefore trustworthy. Likability is also influenced by other traits such as physical attractiveness, humor, name similarity, and flattery, even when it is insincere.

In change management, one potential implication of the likability heuristic is to carefully consider who sends the change messages. If I hear from someone in my same role who supports a change, I am much more likely to support the change than if I heard it from someone in another role. Also, I am more likely to support a change if my immediate supervisor—who I hopefully like—also supports the change. Additionally, if the organization has those few people who are broadly seen as “super likable,” their support for the change can also encourage broader support.

To leverage the liking heuristic, change practitioners might consider the following:

  • Identify and encourage support from individuals who share meaningful similarities with those impacted by the change
  • Find “likable” people to support the change
  • Foster likability through openness by encouraging direct managers to express supportive and authentic feelings and thoughts–positive and negative–regarding the change

The final heuristic is Scarcity (S). When people presume that an item or experience is scarce or in short-supply, they tend to want the item or experience much more than when it is readily available. Whether it’s a “limited time only” sale, or “only a few cars remaining at this price,” scarcity drives people to want more of what they potentially can’t have. In the 1960’s, Jack Brehm coined the term “psychological reactance” to describe the experience people have when they can’t have what they want. The more it appears I can’t have it, the more I want it. Similar to the classic Romeo and Juliet / West-Side Story teenage love scenario, that which is forbidden seems most attractive.

In change management, scarcity is leveraged in a few ways. First, scarcity is evident in a “burning platform,” or evaluation of what is at risk of being lost if a change is not made. Most people will fight to preserve or restore their perceived loss of freedom. Essentially, the message is “This change may be hard, but not changing will limit our options even more.” In 1979, Khaneman and Tversky found that, when it comes to persuasive messages, “losses loom larger than gains.” In other words, people are more persuaded by messages that emphasize what they stand to lose than messages that emphasize what they stand to gain. While a strong WIIFM, benefits-centric campaign may attract some commitment to a change, a reminder of what is at risk of being lost can also pack a persuasive punch. This aligns with Kotter’s first step of establishing a sense of urgency with “a frank discussion of potentially unpleasant facts” (Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1995, p. 60).

A second application of scarcity in change management is through opportunities to participate in the change in some exclusive fashion. For example, participation on a change steering committee or change team can be perceived as desirable because of the limited number of individuals invited to participate. An invitation to a key resistor to participate on a “carefully selected team” for a change may be accepted because of the scarcity of the opportunity, even when the individual does not like the change. The exclusivity of the opportunity makes it attractive. Also, communications may emphasize a deadline—a scarcity of time—to provide feedback on a change. The perceived lack of time can generate a need to capture the window of opportunity before it’s closed.

To use the scarcity heuristic, change practitioners might consider the following:

  • Identify what is at risk of being lost individually and organizationally if the change is not made, whether it’s an opportunity or an existing benefit
  • Increase involvement of stakeholders by extending invitations to participate in an exclusive, “carefully selected project team”
  • Give dates and deadlines to improve participation in change activities


Carefully crafted messages and key talking points are critical for a change effort to succeed. When stakeholders and individuals have the time and resources to evaluate the message, they are likely to feel compelled to get on board with the change, assuming that the overall value of the change is greater than its overall cost. However, many individuals—including leaders—may not have the time and resources to carefully evaluate a particular change. In these circumstances, research in persuasion suggests they are likely to default to simple cognitive short-cuts to make their decisions. These heuristics—including Social Proof, Authority, Reciprocity, Commitment, Liking, and Scarcity—will become the primary guidelines that individuals use to decide to support a change effort or not. By leveraging these heuristics, change practitioners can shore up their change efforts, encouraging broader support among individuals who may not carefully consider the merits of the change itself.