Jun 25, 2013

Seven psychological principles of change

Back in 1953, as we talked about in a past post, a group of anthropologists settled on a working definition of “culture.” They said changing a culture succeeds not so much because a group accepts it, but because each person in the group makes a decision to change for their own reasons. Implementing lean -- which I consider a technology -- in a company with a traditional command-and-control culture is like implementing Western agricultural technology in cultures still using old ways. If each individual must make a decision, if we can understand the psychological processes at work, do we have a better chance of influencing them to change their minds?

Seven psychological principles were identified by Margaret Mead’s team of anthropologists. Although they advised UN change agents to understand them, like much good advice, it has been often ignored in the 60 some years since. Even so, they deserve to be revisited.

Seven psychological principles of change: One and Two

1. The psychology of the experts themselves

Outsiders must realize that their own behavior, beliefs, and attitudes are not universal or the only right ones. They enter an organization where embedded -- and learned -- cultural traditions may seem obviously dysfunctional. Can't you just explain that to them? Someone who understands lean may not remember that their concept of a lean culture also came from learned behavior, beliefs, and mindsets. The attitudes they learned likely took some time to take hold in their own minds, and the group they are leading will need time too.

2. Beliefs and practices direct daily behavior and how individuals relate to other people.

The beliefs and attitudes of the people clinging to their old culture aren’t just ideas. They serve some psychological function or provide some benefit to each individual. The purpose served by old beliefs does not have to be practical or rational. A belief that maintains a comfort zone, predictability, and emotional safety is not going to be abandoned easily. Not letting go of an old mindset is not necessarily evidence of stubbornness, unwillingness to cooperate, or inability to learn.

Lean champions from manufacturing

Speaking of psychology of the individual, lean practitioners often come from manufacturing and engineering backgrounds. Engineering is based on reason and logic. People who choose technical careers often do so because they feel good in an environment based on figuring out mechanisms and the science of things. They can have a hard time working with people who aren’t persuaded by facts and figures, or who don’t believe in the implicit goodness of values like productivity. When lean champions feel like people resist change out of ornery stubbornness or a refusal to listen or learn, it would help if they reflected on their motivations and beliefs and gave the same respect to those they are attempting to change. For it’s been said often that although people don’t want to be changed, they often do change when the time and conditions are right. A bit of patience would save a lot of frustration.

Parts Three through Seven will appear in upcoming posts.

More reading

What is culture and why is it so hard to change?

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