Escape the Corporate Willpower Trap

Imagine an organization where all employees knew how to change any behavior that was undermining personal or corporate success -“ it would literally give them the power to change anything.

The reality most of us face, unfortunately, looks quite different. According to research firm Arthur D. Little, 85 percent of all corporate change efforts fail.

When I share this miserable report card with clients, a few are shocked -“ but none are especially surprised, in spite of the massive strategic failure this represents. It is what we have come to expect. Indeed, the tendency of most is to chalk the failures up to the accepted explanation, “nobody likes change.”

Few see the cause for what it really is: not a lack of will, but a lack of skill.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, the single biggest barrier to the success of organizational change efforts is their individual employees’ inability to change behaviors that are getting in their way. That’s because no problem is purely a personal problem -“ it also impacts the performance of the whole. No human system is more robust than the functioning of the individuals within it.

If we look closer at the quality of individual performance and execution, research shows that most people have a personal behavior challenge that drags down their work performance by as much as 50 percent -“ and have no idea what to do about it. In the face of that, one conclusion is inescapable for organizations: There is no strategy so brilliant that human behaviors can’t render it useless. If an organization is promoting wellness to lower insurance costs, for example, the effort will succeed or fail based on the individual employee’s motivation and ability to make the lifestyle changes that lead to corporate wellness in the aggregate.

And whether as individuals seeking to change, or organizations, whenever we fail to live up to expectations, our tendency is to fall into the willpower trap: we forget the ability side of the equation, and all of the social and structural forces we are subject to, and blame our failure on our own lack of character. If only we were more motivated, we could do this.

It turns out, there’s hope for transcending the willpower trap for both organizations and individuals. To help people overcome years of failed change efforts, the authors and researchers of the New York Times bestseller, “Influencer,” have embarked on their largest study of personal influence to date.

They studied the struggles, strategies, trials and triumphs of 5,000 people looking to make big changes. Whether hoping to get a promotion, lose weight, increase sales or get off drugs, the select few who achieved their goals used the same basic influence strategies -” strategies from which the authors distilled a new science of personal change.

These are revealed in the new book “Change Anything -“ The New Science of Personal Success.” Author Joseph Grenny shares a few key findings on how we can learn to make long-anticipated improvements in our lives, careers and relationships by applying three breakthrough principles to any challenge:

  1. Escape the willpower trap. Those who fail falsely believe they lack willpower. More often, the problem is that they are blind and outnumbered to the many sources of influence shaping their behavior.
  2. Be the scientist and the subject. Those who succeed develop and refine a completely unique strategy for change tailored to their individual needs.
  3. Turn bad days into good data. The successful few care less about dramatic success than they do about incremental learning. They learn from their failures, and adjust, without self-blame or judgment.

The bottom line: all change happens as a result of change in human behavior. There are profound implications of the above principles for organizations of all types that are contemplating strategic change. Three of the most important are:

  • Shift your focus from results to the behaviors that will produce the results. What are high-leverage behaviors that, if routinely enacted, will lead most directly to the desired change?
  • Over invest in skill-building around how to change. Because we assume failure to change is a result of lack of will, we under invest in building individual capacity to step up to the change.
  • Above all, don’t assume that failures are due to lack of motivation. Motivation and ability are like the accelerator and brake pedal on your car. Tromping on the accelerator won’t get the vehicle to move if your foot is on the brake; taking your foot off of the brake of ability barriers often quickly enables forward movement, with very little need for motivational exertion on the other pedal.

If your employees know how to change behavior, the research shows that the likelihood of your change effort being successful is increased tenfold. What could a 1000 percent increase in the odds do for your organization?

Douglas L. Finton is managing director of Vital Skills International LC, the Michigan-based representatives of VitalSmarts, creators of Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer Training.

Previous articleDashboards Point Way to Performance
Next articleTake Advantage of Improving Capital Markets
Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.