Change Management: 6 Lessons in Changing Employee Behaviour

Daniel Lock Change Management
Change Management - 6 Lesson in Changing Employee Behavior

As change leaders we must understand how and why people do what they do, to influence that behavior. This often included crafting strategies and plans, along with a fancy presentation. Training is a mainstay. But there is more to the story.

How useful would it be if you could predict or at least has some idea of people’s reaction to a proposed change? You would be then more empowered to help them and improve the odds of achieving the benefits hoped for.

Well, there are a handful of social psychology lessons you can employ to great effect. In this article, I’ll look at six social psychological principles originally articulated by Robert Cialdini and how you can use them to target your change activities.

6 Social Psychology Lessons Applied to Change Management

1. Liking

It almost goes without saying that we trust people we like more than those we don’t. We are more likely to like someone who flatters us for example. We’re also more likely to like and trust people are who are better looking too. Researcher, Dan Hamermesh, explains in his book, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, why good looking people have more opportunity, and thus success than ugly people.

What this means for change leaders

It’s normal and natural for people at least at some level to resist change. Some will do so vigorously. Leaders hate this because it can threaten to derail a project for fear of such dissent and attitude spreading like cancer. The worst thing you can do is make them ‘wrong’ for resisting. Instead, invoke the liking effect and meet with them, empathize, and listen and generally build relationship and trust.

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2. Consistency

In their famous 1966 experiment, Freedman and Fraser send someone around to ask people to place a small card in a window of their home supporting safe driving. Two weeks later, researchers asked the same people but by a different person to put a large sign in their front yard advocating safe driving. The result: 76% of people who agreed to the first request now complied with the more intrusive request. This compared to only 20% of people who were never asked to put a sign in their windows and were just asked to put up a large sign in their yards.

The lesson here is that you are more likely to get a big “yes” from someone if you get a small “yes” from them first. People tend to want to act consistently from how they acted in response to the first request.

What this means for change leaders

Don’t ask for too much up front. It’s common to announce a big organizational change, resulting in eye rolling. Instead, start small and ask for smaller steps that will move people along the path. Further, create and celebrate quick wins. In a years time, people will be surprised about how far they’ve come. Think big, but plan small.

Also Read: The Seven Deadly Sins of Change Leadership

3. Authority

We tend to believe and act on requests from those who have power. In one experiment, sneaky researchers dressed in doctors garb at a hospital without any other attending identification and asked nurses to give patients what the nurses knew to be lethal doses of medication. The overwhelming majority of the nurses did so without question (they were not allowed to actually inject the unassuming patients).

What this means for change leaders

Find the most obvious person in the hierarchy, usually the project sponsor, and have them lead from the front articulating the reason why this initiative is important and why now. But ordinary hierarchical power isn’t always enough. Look for those who by dint of their tenor, technical skills or influence and co-opt their buy-in too. These additional appeals to authority will help others adopt the change as well.

4. Scarcity

The scarcity principle is powerful, so much so, in one study researchers put ten cookies in one jar, and two identical cookies in another and had people rate which jar of cookies they liked better.

Twice as many people said they like the jar of just two cookies even though they were exactly the same.

What this means for change leaders

By creating the perception that the organization is leading edge and customers are responding by showing their demand for the company’s products and services and how this change enables that, for example, is a great way to show demand. Other ways to use scarcity is to galvanize the organization. For example, stating that you must act now or you’ll miss the window of opportunity.

Competitive pressures such as this can help shock people out of complacency.

5. Social Proof

Marketers use this all the time by displaying testimonials about the results and achievements from the product or service in question. There is safety in numbers. Nobody wants to eat at an empty restaurant so if something is in demand and therefore scarce, it must be valuable. Right?

What this means for change leaders

It’s not only for spammy markets though. Social proof can be an excellent way to cascade a change. Grab favorable comments and case studies from key employees throughout the organizations who are exemplifying the change and broadcast this far and wide. This will help people see that others are getting on board and getting rewarded for it. You can also keep numbers on system usage for example, and publish it periodically. Once there is a critical mass of social proof the change adoption will gain significant momentum.

6. Reciprocity

Simply put, we feel obligated and indebted to people who do things for us, even when we didn’t ask for it. Like the nice people handing out samples of sausages in the supermarket, it can use to trigger an unfair exchange: a free sample for overpriced premium sausages.

What this means for change leaders

In the same way, you’d repay a colleague who helped you with a project at work, change leaders can employ this principle by creating bonuses and benefits for just getting involved in the initiative. Once the employees are engaging even a little they will be more likely to repay with their attention and effort.

Warning: Be careful with applying these principles. If done without a little tact people may feel manipulated and switch off altogether. Once this happens your change initiative will be all but dead from then on.


Looking out for Change Management tools? Then you might want to check out the real-time interactive walkthroughs of Whatfix that help Enterprises streamline the transition of employees, to newer web platforms.

Daniel Lock

Daniel Lock

Daniel Lock helps organizations unlock value and productivity through process improvement, project & change management. Find out more about him at daniellock.com
Daniel Lock
  • Charlie Tombazian

    While I love Robert Cialdini’s powerful work on persuasion and influence, when we are dealing with employees vs. customers, we are more concerned about sustainability of the behavior changes in concert with an organization’s culture, leadership style, strategy and processes. For example, when a big strategic or organizational change is planned, but we break it down into bite size pieces and feed them to employees one at a time, it may conflict with a culture and leadership style committed to transparency. It could also conflict with leaders coaching employees to always “begin with the end in mind” or “start with why.” To really generate sustainable change, we must understand the powerful internal forces at work that keep us human beings in “homeostasis”– our comfort zone. And it is those internal forces we must address in order to help people cross that chasm between what is comfortable and what is a better alternative.

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