Six sources of influence change agents can use in change management

Posted by mjmedlock on July 4, 2011 in Change management |

How can change agents influence behavior?

Change agents can make use of the behavioral change model developed by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan and Switzler. This model identifies six sources of influence. These are personal motivation, personal ability, social motivation, social ability, structural motivation and structural ability. Effective change agents can use a combination of these six sources to help them successfully implement difficult change efforts.





Turn undesirable tasks and behaviors into desirable ones. Over invest in skills training.


Use the power of peer pressure Find strength in numbers.


Design rewards and require accountability. Change the environment.

Personal motivation

People rarely succeed on willpower alone. Change agents won’t succeed by demanding that people be stronger and show self-control. The successful change agent will help people find intrinsic satisfaction from the right behaviors or displeasure from the wrong behaviors. As each change effort and each individual/organization is unique it is difficult to apply a formula to creating intrinsic satisfaction. However, focusing on developing a sense achievement with the result (end result and/or milestone) can be beneficial. Successful change agents tap into people’s sense of pride, love of competition and visions of the future. They also expect failures on the way, so they continually experiment.

In many situations an activity may not be satisfying in itself. Indeed sometimes a dangerous activity might be highly satisfying. In these cases you need to take the focus off the activity and reconnect the behavior to a sense of values or morality. An all too common problem in many organizations is that people become statistics. For example your organization might have factories in which several workers get injured or even killed each year. You look at the statistics and you see that the situation isn’t good and that you must reduces these numbers. But the organization doesn’t seem to have the motivation to take consistent and positive action to tackle this problem. It’s not that people don’t care; it’s just that people don’t really connect statistic with reality. A smart change agent would turn these statistics into people. How? By telling their stories, or better still getting them or their families to tell the story. Turning statistics back into people helps reconnect people with their sense of morality and so motivates changes in behavior.

Personal ability


Being motivated to display key behaviors is important, but people need to have the ability to engage in these behaviors. It is therefore vital that they have the necessary skills. Regrettably often too little attention is paid to giving people the skills they need. Furthermore, organizations seldom acknowledge that it is not enough to just invest in training; the organization needs to over-invest to give the change effort a fighting chance.

A change agent should be aware that people need time to study and practice the key behaviors required for the change effort to work. What follows is a list of the most important points a change agent must pay attention to when instigating a change effort.

  • Training works best when it focuses on specific and repeatable actions.
  • Practicing the “hard stuff” will yield better results than practicing the easy stuff.
  • People learn best when they get immediate feedback. For example, people are far more likely to drive more slowly when they are made immediately aware of their speed than if they receive a speeding ticket several weeks after the event.
  • Breaking tasks into discrete actions, with clear goals, helps people build the skills needed to finish the task. For example, a piano player will often start to learn a new piece one hand at a time. She might also play the piece slowly at first and then gradually move up to the desired speed.
  • Related to the above point, applying the principles of deliberate practice will help perfect skills.
  • Allow people to practice skills in a low risk environment. For example, you can use simulations and role plays.
  • Don’t forget that many behaviors require advanced interpersonal social skills. For example, if lower status employees need to give feedback to senior employees they may require assertiveness skills.

Social Motivation

Humans are social animals this means that social approval is a very powerful motivational force. For an example of how important conformity can be to people I suggest you look at this article on the Asch conformity experiments. Change agents can use the desire for social approval to help them steer a change effort by being aware of three dimensions of peer pressure:

  • Praise → Ridicule
  • Acceptance → Rejection
  • Approval → Disapproval

The key to using peer pressure as a change tool is the realization that people respond to pressure from their peer group NOT from the change agent and NOT from managers. For example, many work places use the concept of “employee of the month” to try to motivate individuals to both perform and inspire their colleagues. This can work well if the workforce strongly identifies with the goals of the organization: to be employee of the month at Google or Apple is quite an achievement.  If you were to achieve this you would no doubt receive the praise, acceptance and approval of your colleagues: But what about an organization with a history of poor employer-worker relations, or even hostility? Would you want to be employee of the month in an organization like that? Probably not, as your peer group is likely to expose your to ridicule, disproval and rejection.

How then can a change agent use social motivation in an atmosphere of skepticism? Effective change agents will look for opinion leaders to transmit the change message. These are people that the peer group trusts, respects and looks to informal leadership. It is important that the change agent doesn’t look for people who are innovators. This seems counter-intuitive; however, while these people often are very open to new ideas, they rarely fit in with the peer group. These oddballs can often stop an idea from becoming accepted.

Finding this respected individual is usually not hard. The change agent can observe interaction in the work place or simple just ask the question “Who would you ask if you want to know how X?” As soon as you start to hear one name repeatedly coming up, you know you have found your target. What now remains to be done is to bring this person around to your way of thinking (see previous post on changing minds). If you can’t do this, the change effort is going to be an uphill struggle.

Social ability

Many change efforts are too hard for all but the strongest individuals to achieve alone. This is why groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous run group support sessions to get addicts to help each other overcome their disease. In addition, they make use of mentoring systems whereby group members who have some record of success will mentor others to help them through the difficult times.

Social ability is famously used by Grameen Bank to get small groups of borrowers to support each other with both ideas and encouragement.

Unfortunately, while social support is common in “social programs” it is less prevalent in organizational life. In a typical scenario an employee may go off for a training workshop and learn some valuable skills. When the employee gets back to the workplace she is full of enthusiasm for what she has learned and is anxious to apply and share the skills. All too often she is met with the reality of everyday work and disinterest from her colleagues and more worryingly from her manager. This results in much of corporate training to be a waste of resources. In fact many firms now acknowledge this and are cutting back on “seminar tourism”. If there were support mechanisms in place for employees returning from training, then perhaps the ROI from training would be much higher.

Structural motivation

Structural motivation concerns the rewards, perks and punishments related to the change effort. All change agents and managers should be aware that there are real risks associated with extrinsic rewards. The recent financial crisis is a reminded of the problem of having people concentrating only on their financial rewards to the detriment of overall organizational effectiveness.

There are also some perverse effects that come from rewarding people for things that they would enjoy doing without a reward. Studies have shown that if you give children who enjoy reading a financial reward for each book they read, they will start to read shorter books (more income to the kid). Furthermore, if try to fix the problem by removing the reward system, don’t be surprised if the children stop reading for pleasure. For other perversities with extrinsic rewards see previous post on Dan Pink’s TED Talk.

The smart change agent then will be very careful with extrinsic rewards. Instead she will focus on developing intrinsic satisfaction with the key behaviors. Furthermore, if she does use extrinsic rewards she will be careful to link rewards to behaviors rather than results. This may seem a little strange, but if she has identified the key behaviors correctly, then the desired result will follow. The problem rewarding results is that people can, and do, cheat or achieve the results through ways than damage the long term objectives of the organization.

Punishment is also an option in change management, but as with extrinsic rewards it is an option that must be used sparingly. Remember when you were at school. Was there a pupil who was constantly in trouble? Was he regularly punished? If so, could you say that the punishment changed his behavior? My guess is that if he was being regularly punished, then the punishment was entirely ineffective. In fact, in a perverse way the punishment may have given him social status and therefore a very powerful intrinsic reward and a great deal of kudos among his peers.

In addition to the danger of a punishment becoming a reward the other danger of punishments is that people disassociate their punishment from their behavior. This may result in the person blaming the manager for the punishment rather than the understanding the real reasons for the punishment. If this person is influential in the peer group this can cause big problems.

Structural ability

A change agent should always look at how the environment helps or hinders the behaviors needed for effective change. A good example is where to position exercise equipment for a person who wants to go on a fitness regime. If you put your running shoes in the cellar rather than conspicuously by the front door, then the chances of a run that day a somewhat reduced.

Further reading on change management on this site

Change management: finding the key behaviors

Change management – How can a change agent change minds?

Strategic change management

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