June 2013 | 

The Biggest Mistake Managers Make (and How to Fix It)


Managers face many challenges, from achieving benchmarks and stretch goals to making continuous improvements to motivating and inspiring others. But the greatest — the one that underlies all others, says Janet Greco, Organizational Dynamics Lecturer at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania — is enabling people to change their behavior.

“Leading is change. Whether you are leading a team, an industry, or a nation, you are working with a set of individuals and you are constantly asking them to change. The mistake many leaders make is expecting that one argument for that change will resonate with everyone. They presume that because their message is cogent, people will absorb it, flock to it, and recognize it as something that works for them.”

Greco, who co-teaches Wharton’s Leading and Managing People, says leaders must build a bridge between their message and the message their team members are inclined to hear and value as an enticement to adding to their behavioral choices. “You can’t inject people with motivation. You have to create conditions to help them find it themselves, by making the change attractive to them. Otherwise, it’s like giving out a strange, new technology. You’re just hoping that they’ll figure out why they want it and how to use it competently on their own.”

She cites a common example of a manager asking someone to work better with another team member. “The conversation typically begins and ends with, ‘I’d like you to work better with ___.’ You’re asking her to change without specifying what that change looks like. If you don’t describe what you want to see, you’re just hoping she will be able to fill in the blanks with both the different behavior and its benefits to her. And this independent conclusion doesn’t happen often, as change often feels like a risk to perceived competence.”

The same type of argument is also common in the case of a merger. “Managers like to make the business case for why the merger is the best business strategy. They logically talk about shareholder value and creating a competitive advantage. But ‘the Board believes that together we will make a great company’ won’t resonate with most people,” says Greco.

What’s a powerful approach? Repetition and variation. “Any message about change has to be delivered many times to the same people. When people are under stress, the words bounce off them. Stress puts up a barrier. Technically, you are asking them to give up a proficiency. It’s toughest when the change impacts their identity. They have to stop doing something they’re good at, something that helps them define themselves, and move on to something else. Most people will fight to maintain that identity, even if it becomes a fossil. They might go along for a while with the new program, but eventually they will revert to what’s comfortable.”

Greco says overcoming resistance to change starts by understanding these built-in conservational thoughts and behaviors. Then, you can tailor your message to help colleagues overwrite them with a story that is even more potentially effective for them. “People will want to spring back to what they think works and who they think they are. In order to lead, to a degree you must you cause cognitive dissonance — asking people to do something that clashes with their current set of beliefs about who they are and how specific behaviors have bolstered that identity in the past. You need to give them two things: time, and a number of good, perceptible reasons.”

“Your message has to have sufficient variety in an organization — a social unit comprising individuals who are different one from the other. In Leading and Managing People, I suggest keeping the core the same but packaging it in different ways, both in terms of expression and media. You want each person to find their ‘Velcro hook,’ the reason that will resonate with them and make them say yes.”

If it sounds like more work, Greco acknowledges that it is. “But the more you put in up front, the more time you will gain in the middle and back end, optimizing the productivity rather than rework. Tailor your message instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach. Be patient. Everyone won’t get on board right away, but when they do, they will be on the right train for the right reasons.”