Change Management: Leveraging Rational Thinking

Originally posted July 5, 2015 as a LinkedIn post.

I read a recent article that struck me as a great guide for consideration when thinking about implementing any business change initiative, and especially sales training/effectiveness initiatives.

The article “A User’s Guide to Rational Thinking” by Christie Aschwanden (@cragcrest) was in the July/August 2015 issue of Discover Magazine.   Yes, a science magazine had great ideas applicable to business!

The article focus is on “cut(ting) through flawed assumptions and false beliefs — including your own — with these strategies.”

If you have any interest in science I’d encourage you to get the digital subscription to Discover (@DiscoverMag) to read the entire article.  For those who don’t, here are the highlights along with my thoughts on application to business change initiatives.

We’re Programmed for Irrational Thought

My favorite line, from Peter Ditto, a psychologist who studies judgment and decision-making, was “People don’t think like scientists; they think like lawyers.”   The principle is that, like lawyers, we generally use “motivated reasoning” and filter what we hear to support any pre-existing beliefs when we process new information.

Why did this catch my eye from a change management perspective?  I’ve spent my whole (business) life around the sales effectiveness space, where change is often implemented through two day training classes.   Trainers and facilitators are often fighting an uphill battle because many of the participants walk into the session expecting the training to fail (or fail to stick).  Essentially the participants are thinking like lawyers!

So what do our scientist friends say we should do about it?   One trick from the article that can apply to people in charge of implementing change – “turn your belief around – Ask yourself ‘what are some of the reasons I might be wrong’.”   For a sales training session, being “wrong” is being wrong that the training you are delivering will have a positive impact on 100% of the attendees and be easy for them to implement in their daily selling routines.

Far too often sales training firms and business executives focus only on the positive (“We’ve been successful hundreds of times before”).  If they can take off their rose-colored glasses and put away their “happy ears” for a minute they can get a lot of value by doing a pre-mortem and considering the possible reasons the project could fail, including the resistance of the sellers.  Unlike the Borg, resistance is not always futile for sellers.

A Field Guide to Irrational Arguments

The article lists five hallmarks to irrational arguments:

  1. The science is nitpicked to fan doubt
  2. The science is rejected based on implications, not data
  3. Scientists’ motives and reasons are attacked
  4. Legitimate disagreements among scientists are amplified to dismiss the science
  5. Appeals are made in the name of “fairness”

What does this look like in sales training? For each of the five hallmarks above, in order:

  1. The sales methodology or training content is nitpicked by the haters to cause doubt with the “undecided”
    “This won’t work for our company because we are soooo different”
  2. The methodology is rejected because it implies something wrong with their buyers
    “You want me to call on more CxO’s!?  That implies my current contacts are worthless”
  3. The motives of the trainer are attacked
    “You’re an in-house trainer, you just wanted the training to justify your job,” or “You’re an outside consultant, you just wanted the training to make yourself money”
  4. Legitimate disagreements among managers are amplified to dismiss the course
    “The APJ Managing Director said Module 5 won’t work because Japanese buyers wouldn’t like it, therefore we should just not bother with this training”
  5. Appeals are made in the name of “busy-ness”
    “I’m already too busy to get my expense reports in on time and you want me to do more paperwork, #@$%&!”

6 Strategies for Conversing with Someone Who Has Irrational Ideas

The article lists six great strategies:

  1. Be a good listener and make a connection
  2. Figure out where they’re coming from and devise a frame that speaks to that
  3. Affirm their self-worth before knocking down their erroneous beliefs
  4. Focus on the facts, not the misconceptions
  5. Ask the person to explain what they know
  6. Engage in person, not in writing

These same strategies work with businessmen and women who are irrationally fighting change.  I see three time periods to keep these six strategies in mind:

No change project or sales training initiative in its right mind would skip the process of getting the “Voice of the Seller” (and Voice of the Customer and Voice of the Partner) during the Discovery and Design phases.

During the Training Event
A great facilitator can incorporate these points into their training delivery and exercise debriefs to help their attendees overcome their “inner lawyer.”

“Voice of the Seller” can continue to be captured with post-training surveys.  Great sales effectiveness firms always incorporate on-going adoption and reinforcement activities which focus on these areas, especially “asking the person to explain what they know” about the new approach

Thank you Christie and Discover Magazine for bringing a dose of science to the business world!

Full URLs in case the hyperlinks break:

Original Illustration by Pat Kinsella:

Author, Christie Aschwanden:

Original Discover Magazine Article:

Twitter handles: @DiscoverMag, @cragcrest