People with the syndrome known as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have error detection circuits that have gone into overdrive. Their orbital frontal cortex sends a constant, incorrect message that something is wrong (“My hands are dirty”). The individual knows, on one level, that the message is incorrect. But the alarm is so compelling, it’s hard to resist trying to fix the situation (“I must wash my hands”), so the person keeps trying to fix it. The more the individual tries to fix it, the more entrenched those neural circuits become in the basal ganglia; any immediate “solution” (washing hands) reinforces the entrenched circuitry, making the problem worse. Even among people without OCD, just trying to change a routine behavior sends out strong messages in the brain that something is not right. These messages grab the individual’s attention, and they can readily overpower rational thought.
It takes a strong will to push past such mental activity — and the same is true on the level of organizational change. Try to change another person’s behavior, even with the best possible justification, and he or she will experience discomfort. The brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, and the capacity for higher thought is decreased. Change itself thus amplifies stress and discomfort; and managers (who may not, from their position in the hierarchy, perceive the same events in the same way that subordinates perceive them) tend to underestimate the challenges inherent in implementation.
Behaviorism Doesn’t Work
Many existing models for changing people’s behavior are drawn from a field called behaviorism. The field emerged in the 1930s and was led by psychologist B.F. Skinner and advertising executive John B. Watson, building on Ivan Pavlov’s famous concept of the conditioned response: Associate the ringing of a bell with food, and a dog can be made to salivate at the sound. The behaviorists generalized this observation to people, and established an approach to change that has sometimes been caricatured as: “Lay out the M&Ms.” For each person, there is one set of incentives — one combination of candy colors — that makes the best motivator. Present the right incentives, and the desired change will naturally occur. If change doesn’t occur, then the mix of M&M colors must be adjusted.
Yet there is plenty of evidence from both clinical research and workplace observation that change efforts based on typical incentives and threats (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run. For example, when people routinely come late to meetings, a manager may reprimand them. This may chasten latecomers in the short run, but it also draws their attention away from work and back to the problems that led to lateness in the first place. Another manager might choose to reward people who show up on time with public recognition or better assignments; for those who are late, this too raises anxiety and reinforces the neural patterns associated with the habitual problem. Yet despite all the evidence that it doesn’t work, the behaviorist model is still the dominant paradigm in many organizations. The carrot and stick are alive and well.
Humanism Is Overrated
The next big field to emerge in psychology after behaviorism was the humanist movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Also called the person-centered approach, the field was inspired by such thinkers as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. This school of thought assumed that self-esteem, emotional needs, and values could provide leverage for changing behavior. The prevailing model of humanist psychology involved helping people reach their potential through self-actualization — bringing forth hidden capacities and aspirations. Therapists and trainers left behind the carrot and stick and focused on empathy. They listened to people’s problems, attempted to understand them on their own terms, and allowed a holistic solution to emerge.