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The Many Levels of Aligning for Change

In a rapidly evolving world, people want to find ways to align their organizations to advance with it. But how do you do that?

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Some years ago, at a major petrochemical firm, the executives wanted to reward their geophysicists, who sat in dark rooms analyzing vast amounts of data and producing beautiful multicolor charts detailing where to drill. Good ones made a big difference to their revenues!

They decided to “reward” their best geophysicists by bringing them to headquarters to present their report personally, on stage, to the hundreds of top leaders of this massive firm.

Executives typically like to influence people. They thought this would be a tremendous reward, and one that would have thrilled them early in their career. But geophysicists were not like that. They were typically introverts who most enjoyed the intellectual challenge of analyzing and conceptualizing data. Presenting to hundreds of executives terrified them. As a consequence, they started doing worse reports, so they wouldn’t get picked.

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If you don’t know what moves people—or what frightens people enough to motivate them in today’s job—how, then, can you convince them to change?

In a rapidly evolving world, people want to find ways to align their organizations to advance with it. But how do you do that? We at Ascent have studied tens of thousands of top business leaders from all over the world, and we’ve seen how the best do it. You need to know three things to get started yourself.

First, the capability of “Aligning for Change,” as we call it, is not one set of behaviors. We see a scale of different behaviors, but you don’t necessarily need to be at the top. We can identify the specific level of behavior required for a given role, defined by the overall challenge, the situation and even the size of the group. You don’t need to be Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr. to bring together a group of a dozen people to do something that makes sense. When realigning a country away from a history of apartheid, or empowering marginalized people to fight a racist culture, then you need that level of change leadership.

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Second, you must be open to change. Your degree of openness dictates how far you can enable others. Why should anyone change if you are unable to flex yourself? In that case, you are not aligning people—you are demanding obedience.

This capability is not telling people what to do differently; it is winning people over to choose to do things differently. If people want to go along, they will.

Our third point will now sound less surprising: It is not anchored in your communication skill alone! Of course, it helps to speak well, but Margaret Thatcher took lessons from a speech coach, and people described Lincoln’s voice as “squeaky.” Likewise, writing is good, but published writer Barack Obama used speechwriters too.

Rather, to influence people to change, you must first understand people. Getting others to do what they wouldn’t do on their own requires emotional intelligence.

These three points take us up the scale from just being to open to change, to becoming a real change agent: someone who adjusts their communication style to the audience because they know and appreciate the people listening. Or, to put it another way, speak to people in a way they can hear. But how many ways are there?

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We know just three major emotional drives account for 85 percent of daily thinking time. Called the “three social motives,” they’ve been studied for over 80 years.

The executives mostly had the Influence motive—the emotional drive to have an impact on or influence others. The geophysicists had more of the Achievement motive—the emotional drive for efficiency and innovation. The two don’t correlate. The third is Affiliation motive, the desire to be in friendly relationships or belong to a group, probably the most common motive (we are social animals, after all) but less business focused. These motives are not conscious, nor what you believe motivates you; they are what feels right or energizes you—your gut. Indeed, people often assume incorrectly that others have the same motives as they do—exactly as the executives did.

A good influencer appeals to all three of these motives. A great one adjusts the balance based on the specific audience to which they appeal.

To be a real change agent, you must communicate the new direction in a way that makes emotional sense to others, not just you, and listen to the response, so you can fine-tune your approach.

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To convince people like the geophysicists to change, you might appeal to doing better: doing this (whatever “this” is) will push the envelope, or be unique. To the executives, you might appeal to the number of people influenced, or how well it moves people, or how it will change the organization. To the affiliative worker, you can refer to supporting colleagues, or bringing people together, or belonging to the team.

In brief: What moves people? Listen and learn! Then you can engage their motive or motives to move them in the direction you want.

Truly great leaders find ways to multiply their impact…but that is a story for another day.

Stephen P. Kelner, Jr., PhD, is president of Ascent Leadership Networks.

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