Study Shows Preserving Old Ways Motivates People to Change

Not long ago, new academic research came out indicating that people are more motivated to change when leaders communicate how some of the old ways of doing things will continue.

I am intrigued by this because my 25+ years researching business success and failure patterns in companies’ strategic moves found that integrating the new with the old is typically a successful approach. However, my research concentrates on the strategic moves that companies make–that’s why this web site uses the brand name Winning Moves®.  Unlike the academic study that recently came out, my research does not focus upon motivational issues of getting people to change, although I sometimes identify ways strategic choice patterns might affect people/executional issues.

For example, several years back, I was quoted in a Harvard Management Update article on overcoming change resistance. There, I pointed out that not all change resistance should be overcome because sometimes those who resist really do understand why the proposed change may not be in the organization’s best interest. I find that this can occur when an organization pushes for excessive change. Some of those change resistors can really see where continuity is better for the organization than excess change. However, my thinking on this issue has centered on the strategic value of not overdoing change and has not addressed the issue of motivating people to change.

Along similar lines, in material I have written, I explain that many execution issues take care of themselves if the strategy is right. Execution difficulties frequently are not due to people issues, but often occur because the strategy fits so poorly that it is not executable. I have written about this both in my newsletter and in an article I wrote for MWorld, a publication of the American Management Association. Again, however, my focus is on identifying strategies that will go smoothly, not on motivating people to change.

That’s why the recent academic research caught my eye. Like my work, this academic research found value in not throwing away all of the old. But, this academic research, which is discussed in the August 15, 2018 Harvard Business Review online article “Research: To Get People to Embrace Change, Emphasize What Will Remain the Same” by Merlijn Venus, Daan Stam, and Daan van Knippenberg, examines an aspect of integrating the new with the old that I have not looked at.  Their research found that “leadership was more effective in building support for change the more that leaders also communicated a vision of continuity.” The article says, “People fear that after the change, the organization will no longer be the organization they value and identify with.” The article recommended that leaders’ communication “has to emphasize continuity–how what is central to ‘who we are’ as an organization will be preserved”.

As I see it, this recent academic research is one more reason why companies should avoid strategies that try to completely change everything. Redoing everything strategies can be tempting in an era of rapid change and potential disruptive threats, especially if panic sets in. But, my research finds that changing everything generally does not work. Changing everything requires too much learning. Evolution, not revolution is more successful.

And, now that we have the recent academic research showing the motivational value of communicating continuity, avoiding a change everything approach not only has a strategic advantage, but offers an additional benefit as well. Not changing everything makes it easier to communicate continuity and, thus, as the new study found, helps prevent change resistance.


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