Changing Mindsets: One Key to Successful Organizational Change

May 23, 2012

In a recent post, Learning Organizations Require Certain Conditions, I talked about how – at a personal level – we need a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. If your goal is to stretch yourself and expand your capabilities, you need to be willing to put yourself in new situations that a growth mindset welcomes.

At an organizational level, a significant challenge for leaders who are driving change is making that change stick. This means changing the mindsets of those in the organization, shifting thinking towards something new while overcoming that inevitable resistance. People need to accept and buy into it. Change must move past being “something new” to the “new norm.”

How do you get there?

I found some solid advice in the book Beyond Performance by Colin Price and Scott Keller.

The first piece of advice is simple and practical: “Shifting mindsets is a gradual process, and we'd advise organizations not to take on too many at once.”

Here’s a question for you: Should you focus on what is wrong or what you are doing right? A study performed by the University of Wisconsin provides the answer. The study involved the filming of two bowling teams. Each team was given its own video to study, but one team received a video that showed only its mistakes; the other received a video that showed only its successes. After seeing the videos, the team that studied its successes improved its score by twice as much as the team that studied its mistakes.

In a corporate context, focusing exclusively on what is wrong has been demonstrated to create fatigue and resistance. That does not mean that you ignore your problems, but to do as T. H. White, former president of GTE Telephone Operations, says: “If we dissect what we do right and apply the lessons to what we do wrong, we can solve our problems and energize the organization at the same time. … We cannot ignore problems, but we just need to approach them from the other side.”

Price and Keller advocate using the “influence model,” which identifies four major levers that leaders can use to shift employee mindsets on a wide scale:

A compelling story. Can employees say, “I know what is expected of me, I agree with it, and I want to do it?”

Reinforcement mechanisms. Do the organization's formal mechanisms reinforce the shifts in mindset that employees are being asked to make?

Skills required for change. Do employees have the skills they need to think and behave in the new way?

Role modeling. Do employees see their leaders, colleagues, and staff thinking and behaving in the new way?

And finally (and always), don’t micro-manage! As Price and Keller state in Beyond Performance, “Micro-programming every facet of a transformation will only bog the effort down in energy-sapping bureaucracy. What we're after is coherence without rigidity.”