Humans are complicated. While some of our base emotions and behaviors are easy to understand, there are times when we appear to make irrational decisions when faced with personal change. For example, behavioral economists have identified a specific instance when we apparently place a very different value on something depending upon whether we own it or not. Consider the following scenario.
Imagine a team performed an analysis on the layout of a work area. The team concluded that a significant amount of waste of motion and waste of transportation would be removed if the work stations in the cell are re-arranged. With a proposed new floor layout, each of the operators would walk shorter distances as they moved among the stations. It would make it easier for them to accomplish their work each day. The location of the new work stations would be comparable in every way to the existing workstations – tools, space, lighting, climate, proximity to the work. This sounds like a positive outcome for everyone!
However, when the proposed plan is shared with the crew, it is met with surprising resistance by some of the operators. This would seem to be an illogical decision. These operators would rather walk further (and therefore work harder) than accept these minor personal changes to their work flow! How can this be?
Many people believe you must persuade the majority in order for change to occur. This is a myth. Instead, leaders should focus their efforts on a small but influential subgroup known as opinion leaders to get a new idea adopted.
Everett Rogers originally published his theory on the Diffusion of Innovations in 1962. It is a theory that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. The book (now in its fifth edition) says diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. The innovation or idea must be widely adopted in order to self-sustain.
In his book, Dr. Rogers tells a fascinating story of how he was prompted very early in his career to study how new ideas were adopted by the masses.
Immediately after graduating with a Ph.D. in sociology, Dr. Rogers accepted a job working with an agricultural extension service in Iowa. His primary responsibility was to work with the local farmers and encourage them to use newly developed varieties of corn which were proven in field tests to produce crops with higher yields, as well as being more disease-resistant. As a result, these strains of corn were more profitable than the current varieties.
Unfortunately, Dr. Rogers quickly learned he couldn’t connect with the farmers. He was a college-educated young man who had never plowed a field or planted corn. All his academic knowledge didn’t mean anything to the farmers. He lacked credibility.
He realized he needed to convince at least one farmer to try one of the new strains. That way, he reasoned, once this crop was proven to have higher yields, all the other farmers would follow suit and adopt the new innovation in corn seed.
As a manager, it is likely that some of the biggest challenges you face are those that you consider to be “people problems.”
[I will not be discussing any of the myriad of technical dilemmas of managers – those that are centered on manufacturing methods, research, product development, engineering, technology, logistics, etc].
In this post, I am referring to the kinds of problems where the character of the individual is perceived to be the main reason for a performance issue. For example:
An employee fails to follow work instructions, which results in rework.
A worker is injured when she takes an unnecessary risk to get the job done.
A number of employees are perpetually late when submitting expense reports.
An employee’s timeliness in completing some assignments is unacceptable.
Supervisors do not spend enough time talking to their employees.
If you were faced with any of the challenges listed, what would you do? Many of us would engage the employee in some form of training, coaching, counseling, and/or expectation setting. In other words, we assume that the behavior is largely determined by the individual’s character, personality, or mindset. Unfortunately, we frequently overlook the power of “situations” in determining someone’s behavior.
A number of years ago, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross conducted a literature review on a large number of studies in psychology. He concluded that we have a tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. Ross referred to this tendency as the Fundamental Attribution Error. We make this error when we attribute people’s behavior to the way they are (their character) rather than to the situation they are in (their environment).
Change is hard. Leading others through change can be a daunting
challenge. However, if leaders understand and apply some basic principles, even large organizations can be re-aligned and move in a different direction.
I was thinking about this as I watched a video about operating a large rail yard. I noticed that when an engine hooked up to a long train of cars, the engineer did not simply pull forward after it was coupled. Instead, he backed up first. Then, he slowly accelerated forward. By backing up, the couplings between each rail car were compressed. As a result, when the engine started forward, there was a small amount of slack in the couplings between each car. When the engine started moving forward it was pulling (for an instant) just one car – then two cars, then three cars, and so on.
By following this procedure, the engine was able to eventually pull several hundred cars. If the engineer did not back up first, he would have to pull all the cars at the same time. The total weight of a long train would cause even the strongest engine to lose traction and spin its wheels.
We are influenced by the actions of others more than we may care to admit. Many researchers have confirmed that social influence has a powerful effect on our decisions.
We experience many forms of social influence, although we probably don’t think about it. Perhaps you purchased something after hearing about it from a friend or family member. Or you may have joined an organization or club because someone you know is one of the members. Throughout our lives, we have been powerfully persuaded or casually nudged thousands of times to make a decision or take an action because of social influence.
Indeed, the authors of Influencer contend that there are six sources of influence. They refer to one of these influences as social motivation (although most of us think of this as peer pressure).
Let’s review a recent study by Pedro Gardette of Stanford that supports this concept. He wanted to measure the effect of social influence on the purchasing patterns of airline passengers. Continue Reading
“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
– Pablo Picasso
As the engineering manager of a large manufacturing facility, Rick had a knack for identifying talent. Whether he was recruiting on campus or interviewing candidates with some experience, Rick had a set of criteria that guided his decision-making. It started with GPA and class rank, but also included other accomplishments such as patent applications, publications, research grant awards, and other recognition. Everyone agreed that Rick attracted the best and brightest professionals to join his staff. Rick recruited for exceptional talent.
At the same facility, Karen provided leadership for a process control group. She would accompany Rick on many of the campus recruiting visits. Karen and Rick pursued their respective candidates from essentially the same pool. However, Karen had a different perspective. She wanted to learn about each candidate’s work and social background. She was keen to learn about how they overcame obstacles, struggled to succeed, and learned from their mistakes. The candidates who received offers to join Karen’s group were often (on paper) “second-tier” talent. Each person had solid grades and had the skills needed for the job, but they were not exceptional. Karen recruited for growth potential.
What happened when these employees joined the company? It is a tale of two divergent philosophies.