Making the switch – the Rider and the Elephant

Managing change remains one of the single biggest challenges for leaders today. By our very nature we resist change and lean towards maintaining the status quo. Being a leader who can be flexible and lead the way forward in times of change, showing their adaptability and inspiring others to do the same, is no easy feat. Understanding the psychology behind what motivates us to change is important in determining how to ignite change in your staff.

In their bookSwitch – How to change things when change is hard,Chip Heath, a Professor in the School of Business at Stanford University, and his brother Dan Heath, a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s Centre for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, suggest a straightforward, step-by-step framework for changing people and organisations.

The Rider and the Elephant

Within the book, the Heath brothers refer to a concept of the Rider and the Elephant, a model of behaviour originally presented by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The “Rider” represents our rational side whilst the “Elephant” represents our emotional side.Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and appears to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the enormous Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He or she is outmatched. 

As Heath puts it; “Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialled your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on.”

According to the Rider-Elephant framework, the key to effective change is to get the Elephant and the Rider moving together in an agreed direction. The rational Rider can plan, while the Elephant is driven by emotion and instinct. So how can you find the right balance and have the two working towards a common goal?

How to ‘switch’ from your current state to the new desired state

It’s important to distinguish between knowing how to act and actually being motivated to act a certain way. We may know we need to increase sales by 20% for example but leaders wanting to ignite changed behaviour in their staff need to appeal not only to people’s rational side but most importantly to the emotional self. When we feel something on an emotional level, we are more likely to change. Whilst appealing to the rational and emotional selves is vital, you also need to clear the way for them to succeed. In short, you need to do these three things.

1. Direct the Rider:
Often what seems like resistance is simply a lack of clarity. Our rational selves tend to deliberate and analyse situations. If the Rider isn’t sure where to go or how to get there, he/she will sit atop the Elephant going around in circles. The Rider needs a crystal-clear vision of the outcome and how to get to it. To appeal to the Rider, identify thebright spots’ (see what’s working elsewhere and clone it), and script the critical moves/ behaviours of how to get to the desired outcome. Providing as much clarity about the change as possible is the main aim of appealing to the rational self. Change is always easier when everyone knows where they are going and why it’s worth it.

2. Motivate the Elephant:
Having satisfied the Rider, you now need to make your audience ‘feel’ the need for change by appealing to their emotions. Knowing is not enough. In order to motivate people to embrace the change and to stay on track even when they feel exhausted and limited in their rational thinking, they need to feel it, to believe in it and to be emotionally invested in it. And they need to believe in themselves and their ability to reach the outcome. Often breaking down the change until it no longer ‘spooks’ the Elephant is important in maintaining drive, determination and engagement. Cultivating a sense of identity and embracing a growth mindset also helps you and your staff feel emotionally satisfied, connected to the bigger picture and motivated to get there.

3. Shape the Path:
Lastly, you need to shape the path to make it easy for everyone to embrace the change and reach the desired outcome. Tweak the environment to ensure the path is cleared for success. Focussing on this aspect of the framework, you could create relevant training, peer support groups, step-by-step guidance and new or improved procedures to make for an easier path. Also try to build new habits; when behaviour is habitual, it’s “free” (it doesn’t tax the Rider). And importantly, embracing the principle that behaviour is contagious, focus your efforts on “rallying the heard”.

Next time you need to ignite change in your team or organisation, try to tackle it with this helpful framework and its principles in mind. I would love to help you and your team embrace change and work better together with a tailored workshop. Please get in touch today. I’d love to help!

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