The Right Way to Create Urgency for Change

April 27, 2021

The Right Way to Create Urgency for Change

Several years ago, in New York, I met a senior executive who worked at a major bank. He told me that for years his doctors tried to convince him to change his lifestyle because he was suffering from a rare heart disease. Nothing seemed to get to him until the day his wife sat him down and described to him in vivid language the wedding day of their two-year-old daughter, sometime in the future. She described how proud he looked, walking his daughter down the aisle, and how happy he was, dancing the night away. He said that the story had a big impact on him—in his own words: “It was as if a light switch had been turned on!” Something inside him told him that he needed to change and he embarked upon a journey of personal change immediately. Fifteen years later, he was still going strong. 

This is a simple story that highlights something that psychologists have been telling us for years: To create the “right” kind of urgency and get people to change for good, you need to make the need for change positive, personal and emotional. 

Making the Case for Change

The first requirement is to make the need for change positive. This does not mean that we can ignore the bad stuff and focus only on the positive. You need to tell people the bad stuff—that is, the dire consequences of not responding to the disruption. However, we cannot stop there. We need to also tell them the positive stuff—that is, the wonderful things that will happen if we do respond to the disruption. This is not an either/or choice. Just like it is not enough to use only scare tactics, it is also not enough to just make the need for change positive—we need to do both.

The second requirement is to make the need for change personal and that means aligning the change with something that is of value to each and every single employee. This implies that it is not enough to argue for change because it will make the company more profitable or less likely to fail; people need to understand what’s in it for them. After all, they are the ones bearing the costs of change, they want to see some personal benefits out of it. These benefits do not need to be monetary—in fact, non-monetary benefits are more likely to motivate people into sustainable change.

The third and most difficult requirement is to make the need for change emotional. This is not the same thing as making the need for change personal. Yes, employees are more likely to connect at an emotional level with a personal rather than an impersonal reason for change, but this is not guaranteed. Work still needs to be done to make even a personal reason for change emotional. It is easy to come up with a nice-sounding, positive reason why we need to change—for example, “we are doing this for our customers,” or “we are doing it for society.” These reasons may sound good, but the trick is to sell them to people to win their emotional commitment. How do you convince people amidst all the destruction associated with disruption that positive things will eventually come our way, and more importantly, how do you get them to accept these positive things not only at a rational but also at an emotional level? More time and effort should be spent on portraying disruption as an opportunity rather than as a threat. This would go a long way to convincing people that responding to disruption can bring positive effects. However, we still need to get our people to accept these positive outcomes at an emotional level.

Make the Need for Change Personal

First, give them all the negative facts about disruption and warn them that if we don’t change, bad things will happen to us. This is the threat framing that is necessary to demonstrate that we are not hiding from reality. But you should not stop there. Complement this threat framing with a positive reason why we need to change. The key is to make sure this positive reason is personal to every single employee.

This is a challenge. Different people are motivated by different things, so how can you come up with a (positive) reason that everybody would find personally meaningful? The answer is to find a common denominator. In other words, find something that most people would relate to or most people would find worthwhile. To get an idea of what this could be, consider the following examples:

  • A high-tech company explained to its employees the need for a major investment in a new product in this manner: We need to do this because 50 years from now, you will be telling your grandchildren: “I was there.”
  • A mining company explained to its people the need for radical changes in its safety procedures like this: We need to do this because we want you to finish work every day and go back to your family every night, safe and sound.
  • A chemicals company explained to its people the need for radical change in its environmental and safety procedures like this: We need to do this so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy our lakes and rivers.

These examples point to certain things that could serve as common denominators—things like customers, co-workers, family, society, environment. They may not strike people as personal, but they are certainly more personal than the usual reasons companies give for change—to help the company survive the disruption or remain profitable.

Make the Need for Change Emotional

Giving people something personal to aim for is useful but it is hardly emotional. Even the best-sounding personal reasons will fail to elicit an emotional reaction unless you support the statement with some other tactics. If you don’t believe me, consider the following statement: “Our purpose is to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren.” This is an actual purpose statement by a European multinational. There is no question that it is nice and positive, but how many of us would immediately believe that this is an honest statement, let alone be prepared to fight for its achievement with passion and energy? The answer is not many. A statement, however nice or inspiring, will not by itself elicit emotion from people. 

We therefore need to go beyond simply communicating to people to doing certain other things to support what we say. Here are a few tactics illustrating what we could be doing:

  • Walk the talk. It should be obvious that we need to support what we are saying with actions. Nothing could be more persuasive to people than seeing their senior leaders behave in ways that support what they are proclaiming, especially when the actions are not cost-free. 
  • Visualization. Things that people see are more likely to evoke emotions than things they hear or read. You should therefore help them visualize what you are trying to sell to them. Instead of telling them, “We need to become more innovative because that would save people’s lives,” it is better to bring patients into the organization to tell the employees how your company’s products have saved their lives.
  • Storytelling. Stories and how you tell them are more likely to evoke emotions than a presentation. You should therefore support what you are selling to people with stories. 

It should be obvious that to win people’s emotional commitment, many tactics over and above effective communication should be employed. It should also be obvious that this is a time-consuming process that requires a lot of effort and energy on the part of senior management. If we were to compare what is needed to try to create urgency through scare tactics versus what is needed to try to create it by making an emotional case for it, one could see why organizations prefer the easier and quicker strategy of scare tactics. The strategy of fear may be easier to utilize, but it is almost never as effective as the strategy of making the need for change emotional to people.

This extract from Organizing for the New Normal by Constantinos C. Markides is ©2021 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

The Authors: 

Constantinos C. Markides is Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and holds the Robert P. Bauman Chair in Strategic Leadership at London Business School. He is the author of seven books.