on target goal

I Am Your Change Target

Erik Jul

Editor’s Note: I love to learn about and discuss the transformative potential of behavioral science in our personal, professional and organizational lives. It’s that last realm – within an organization – that is most exciting, in large part because it is the least explored. As discussed elsewhere on this site, most of the applications of behavioral science to date have been outward facing – on clients, customers, patients, users, partners, etc. Internal applications within an organization, however, hold tremendous potential for massive, large scale change,… but it’s, as yet, not as explored as the external ones, for a variety of reasons. I wanted to learn more about organizational change to see how there might be a fit for future experiments or interventions.

Luckily, I remembered there’s a whole profession designed around Organizational Change Management (OCM).

Even luckily-er, we found someone from that professional with a passion for behavioral science.

Even more luckily-er, he was eager to try an experimental way of writing about the tremendous intersection of change management and behavioral economics: This article, which begins a conversation between the target of a change initiative and an OCM practitioner. Let me know what you think.


Hello. You are an Organizational Change Management (OCM) practitioner. I am your target. You want me to change, but despite your best efforts, I am not changing, and if I am, it’s certainly not as you wish I would.

We are both frustrated. Until recently, neither of us had much insight into why I’m behaving this way.

I Live in a Marketplace

I am your target employee, and I live in a marketplace defined by a willing seller (me) and a willing buyer (the company). In exchange for consideration, I render requested professional services. That’s the simple economic heart of the deal.

For years, managers relied upon this heavy-handed deal during times of change: “Just tell them what to do. That’s what we’re paying them for. They’ll change if they want to keep their jobs.”

This argument has power, and people certainly get fired for not doing their jobs and not changing as demanded, but I hope I never actually encounter that unspoken message spoken that way.

Much like the familiar marketplace of commercial goods and services where I buy shampoo, pay rent or go to a restaurant, the workplace is a mix of economic theory and behavioral and social psychology.

Yet even with my employment and income at risk, why do I nevertheless appear, at least to you, to resist your change initiatives without reason? You’ve probably got a Resistance Management Plan with my name on it. I am your target.

Much like the familiar marketplace of commercial goods and services where I buy shampoo … the workplace is a mix of economic theory and behavioral and social psychology.

My Starting Point

As a change manager, you’d like me to behave according to the classic economic models that describe all of us as economically rational humans. That would make things so much easier. Things like your job.

I’d be more predictable were I always and consistently to make decisions that increase my utility – that is, “the satisfaction or benefit derived by consuming a product.” (Excuse my economic lingo.) (Editor’s note: You’re excused, for now.)

Right now, the “product” you’d like me to consume is your change initiative. However, my willingness to pay, in this case, my required effort to accept your proposed changes, is low. I’m not buying.

I understand the idea of utility, but what I’d like you to know is that I am not always rational. I simply can’t do all the thinking necessary to make the consistently utility-maximizing choices predicted by economic models. Frankly, I’ve got my limits.

Even as a rock-star employee, I live a life of “bounded rationality.” Herbert A. Simon figured this out a while ago, earning himself the Noble Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his “pioneering research into the decision-making process within economic organizations.” Thank you, Herbert. This explains a lot.

Thank you, Herbert. This explains a lot.

The mental resources I need to adopt and support your change initiative are scarce: attention, cognition and self-control. I’m not a dumb or bad person, I just have a limited amount of these finite resources, many of which seem to diminish just when I need them most. Sorry. I’m only human.

Happily (for me), I’ve attempted to bolster my cognitive shortcomings and replace the toil of following economic models with a fast, subconscious, automatic, almost effortless manner of decision-making that’s evolved over millennia. Daniel Kahneman, also a recipient of the Noble Prize in Economics (2002), calls it System 1 thinking, and it’s helpful most of the time.

What a relief!

System 1 thinking involves heuristics. “A heuristic technique, often called simply a heuristic, is any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method, not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, logical or rational, but instead sufficient for reaching an immediate goal.” Hey! That sounds like what I use! (FWIW, that definition is from Wikipedia which is, itself, a shortcut for deeper thinking.)

Now that I think of it, one of my favorite heuristics could be confounding your OCM plan right now: reference dependence. I call it a “favorite” heuristic not because I consciously invoke it but because it presents itself so often and so quickly that I embrace it like an old friend. Simply put, I evaluate any prospective change, and its potential losses or gains, real or imagined, from my own reference point. I weigh changes relative to my status quo. What’s worse, not only do I wish to avoid losses, I tend to be more sensitive to losses relative to my reference point than I am responsive to potential gains. (Editor’s note: See, soon, our Nugget on Loss Aversion.)

Simply put, I evaluate any prospective change, and its potential losses or gains, real or imagined, from my own reference point.

And get this: I feel an endowed right to my own status quo! I’m likely to over-value what I have because it’s mine, or I think it’s mine. This endowment effect plays out within our organization by attaching itself to things like my position in the firm, title, compensation, skills and reputation when compared to the potential, less me-focused benefits offered by your change initiative.

Reference dependence. Loss aversion. Endowment effect. That’s why I’m not buying the change you’re selling. At least, not yet.

This Is Me

You’ve told me what benefits you think your change has to offer me, and I admit, you made it sound pretty good. But why does your visionary message and well-structured communication plan nevertheless fail to move me?

I don’t think of myself as intransigent.

Something else must be at work. I mean something in addition to my starting reference point, my desire to minimize loss and the sense of entitlement that has insidiously infused my current world view.

Those responses are disconcerting enough, but what happens next is truly startling. As I reflect upon your change proposition, I reference information readily available in my recent memory. As I recall, the last change initiative appeared to be all talk and no action, no real change and no delivery on promises. Undue disruption, wasted effort and lost time. I’m just saying …

Don’t blame me. Without even asking, my brain has triggered the availability heuristic, yet another thinking shortcut intended to help me make quick decisions.

Quick decisions? Yes. Good decisions? Not always.

Unfortunately for you, I make similar mistakes sizing up your change initiative by draping it with my own quick mental calculations influenced by recent experience.

Compound Interest

This should interest you. I compound my poor, availability-biased, decision-making escapades by actively avoiding information that might lead to better decisions while simultaneously actively seeking information that confirms my point of view.

Information is key here, and your communication plan is full of informational resources and activities. Nicely done. But I neither see it nor believe it.

I have a penchant for avoiding information: I choose not to obtain knowledge that is freely available. This is as hard for me to believe as it must be for you, because so much of what I do at work requires seeking information. Turns out that avoiding useful information is a pretty common behavior, too.

I skip over your memoranda and don’t even glance at the telemonitors broadcasting your messages throughout the office. I’d simply rather not deal with your attempts to communicate with me or gain the knowledge that you offer, despite how they might help me make better decisions. As I said, I’ve got only so much mental bandwidth, and your insistent change announcements simply add to my weariness. No disrespect intended. I’m still only human.

Even when I receive your new information and ideas, I am often blinded by confirmation bias. I overweight info that supports my views or discounts yours. And because I am negatively disposed toward your change initiative, this is bad news for both of us. As I build a case against your change effort in my mind, I fail to discover or appreciate its potential value or enjoy the power of positive engagement. Sorry.

As I build a case against your change effort in my mind, I fail to discover or appreciate its potential value.

Hopefully, this little talk about behavioral economics will help us both learn about the forces impacting my unconscious, irrational decision making process: bounded rationality, scarcity, reference dependence, loss aversion, endowment effect, availability, information avoidance and confirmation bias.

Add all those up and behavioral economics provides explanations that should help you reshape and reframe your OCM approach, help me embrace your plan and help us change this whole dang organization for the better.

Just a little tip from me, your target.

Erik Jul


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