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When Being Right is the Wrong Strategy for Change

Posted by Maggie Millard

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May 16, 2019 7:32:00 AM

Frequent readers of this blog are probably familiar with Mark Graban. Mark has been an enormous contributor to the ideological foundation of the KaiNexus continuous improvement software.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Mark is an internationally-recognized expert in the field of “Lean Healthcare” and the author of LeanBlog.org and author of the Shingo Research and Professional Publication Award-winning book Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Engagement.

His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, is a management book about using simple, yet practical statistical methods that help leaders at all levels overreact less to their metrics, which frees up time for real, focused, sustainable improvement.

Mark joined us for a recent KaiNexus user group in Austin to share with the audience his thoughts on why being right isn’t always the best strategy for change. This post is a recap of the presentation, but we promise its worth your time to watch the whole thing.


The Shift from Cop to Coach

Mark began the presentation by talking about the advantages of changing from a policing mindset, telling everyone what they’ve done wrong, to a coaching one in which employees are encouraged and supported.

This also involves moving away from telling people what to do, which will result in compliance, but not positive change. Instead, Mark recommends starting from “Why?” Focusing on motivations and goals and reasons. But he warns against the trap of telling people why. A more effective strategy is asking people why they would want to do something.

Do we want to be right or do we want to help others change? People don’t resist ideas because they are dumb or lazy. They resist ideas when they don’t feel engaged and part of the process of deciding how to change. They resist ideas when they haven’t come to their own “why.”

And From Coach to Counselor

Traditional therapy often revolves around the idea of telling the patient that they are wrong. “You should stop doing this and start doing that.” This creates the opposite reaction of pushback and entrenches the existing behaviors. Counselors have learned that telling people what to do doesn’t really impart new information to the person they are trying to help.

A more modern approach to counseling is called motivational interviewing. The approach recognizes that change is a process. The counselor asks questions and tries to draw out the motivation of the person they are trying to help. Articulating the reasons for change activates the part of your brain that makes action more likely.

The spirit of motivational interviewing:

  • There is a collaboration between the practitioner and the client
  • Evoking the client’s ideas about change
  • Emphasizing the autonomy of the client
  • Practicing compassion in the process

When people are becoming open to change they use language cues called “change talk.” They use preparatory language, including the desire, ability, needs, and reasons for change. That moves into mobilization language, which involves commitment, activating, and taking steps to change.

The interviewer can invite more change talk by asking open-ended questions, offering affirmations, practicing reflective listening, and providing summaries of what’s been communicated.

Mark recommends that the audience read Motivational Interviewing for Leadership, a great book about applications in the workplace.

The Stages of Change

Change is a process, not an event. Its stages include:

  1. Precontemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance/Sustainment

Precontemplation and contemplation may look like resistance, but they are part of the process. Instead of using the word resistance, the word ambivalence may be more helpful. When someone is in the change process, but are not yet taking action, they are on both sides of the fence. They want to change, but they also have more reasons not to. The harder we push, the more likely they are to push back.

The Righting Reflex

The “righting” reflex as described in Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change is the desire to fix what seems wrong with people and to set them promptly on a better course, relying in particular upon directing.” This is a problem because telling people what to do causes an equal and opposite reaction and triggers them to vocalize their reasons for sustaining the behavior, hampering their progress in the change process.

What works instead is evoking people’s motivations, guiding the conversation in a way that increases change talk and reduces sustain talk. When someone is stuck, it can be helpful to ask a few questions.

  • On a scale of 0 to 10, how important is it right now for you to change?

Follow up by asking the person to explain why they chose the number they did, rather than a lower number. For example, “Why did you say six instead of 3?” The follow-up question invokes change talk as the person articulates why the rated it a higher priority.

The next question is:

  • On a scale of 0 to 10, how confident are you that you can make this change?

The follow-up question is the same. “Why did you say two instead of 0?” Again, this will help with the process of the person talking themselves into change.

Engaging people, evoking their motivations for change, helping them plan what they are going to do takes more time than directing people, but it is more effective in creating a willingness to change.

Mark closed the session by asking, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to help people change?

We are very grateful to Mark for joining us. If you’d like to get more content like this first-hand and connect with other people who are working hard to create a culture of positive change, join us for KaiNexicon 2019 in Austin on September 24-25.

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Topics: Leadership, Employee Engagement, Improvement Culture

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