Kick-Start Change with a Challenge

In my previous posts on this topic, you’ve defined the change you want to see among your teammates and you’ve embraced how it will benefit all of you, personally and professionally. Now, you need to get everyone on board with the change initiative and working toward a clear, specific goal. But you’ve realized that just admitting you need to change isn’t really “half the battle” you thought it was. So what do you do?

This is where you issue what I like to call “the challenge”: a kick-off event where leaders bring the members of the organization together to set in motion the new initiative to help put structure and form around the desired sea change.

The challenge is a way to ignite action. Managers give people “permission” to behave differently and publicly announce support of the new-way behaviors, but that’s not enough. Success depends upon management’s ability to encourage others to rise to the occasion and sustain progress because a safe haven has been created for them to grow.

The Importance of Choice

The challenge is usually given at an offsite session where leaders review the current state of the business to really “bring home” the need for change. The point is not to incite panic or lay blame but to assume responsibility as leaders and issue a call to action. And offsites often have a more relaxed, collaborative atmosphere where your team will be more receptive to new ideas.

When designing the challenge, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • It should be specific. Set realistic objectives that feature a short-term, measurable goal, ideally 90-120 days. The “better the devil you know” mentality can easily creep in when the ends are vague or where measuring progress is difficult. Change is hard, and sometimes off-putting to those involved, so make sure your team has concrete ways of telling whether the change is effective or not.
  • Freedom of choice is a requirement. The challenge has to involve choice, both in whether and how employees can participate. When people feel they have the freedom to make their own decisions they’re more likely to take the task to heart, so make sure the specificity of the challenge and the short-term goal don’t fully describe how to execute it. Better results are achieved when you leave room for experimentation, improvisation and individual work styles.
  • Giving people a role in designing the solution is key. Amy F. T. Arnsten, professor of Neurobiology and Psychology at Yale, has ample research that demonstrates just how important the feeling of control is to us. On some level, we all resist being told what to do. Arnsten’s laboratory has shown that when tasks are dictated to a person, the brain’s prefrontal cortex – the frontal lobe’s problem-solving, emotional and behavioral regulator – exhibits a dip in cognitive functioning. We think less, not more – and certainly not creatively. Surprisingly enough, the sense of being in control is what matters. Even when the feeling of control is merely an illusion, Arnsten says, “Our cognitive functions are preserved.”

Framing the Challenge

How the challenge is framed influences participation levels. The research of Sendhil Mullainathan, Economics professor at Harvard, shows that we rarely assess the absolute value of each behavioral alternative in front of us. Instead, we are swayed by how an alternative is positioned relative to other alternatives.

Through our work at Ferrazzi Greenlight, we have witnessed this dynamic numerous times with clients. Frame a challenge as an “investment” (i.e. something that involves risk) and people display risk-aversion and an unwillingness to change. Frame it instead as a “consumption” – in other words, look at what you’re doing already and consider this new alternative simply as a reallocation of existing time and resources – and buy-in becomes much easier.

Most importantly, a leader has to be very transparent about what the challenge will require of him or her personally. The challenge won’t motivate anyone if it is delivered by an emotionally remote leader, unable or unwilling to communicate with candor, humility and vulnerability. Unless leaders share their own emotional stake in the change – saying, in effect, “I am one of you” – they will never gain the empathy and emotional buy-in that leads to personal commitment.

The effects of such personal candor are immediate and profound. When a leader states explicitly what steps he or she will take toward the shared goal, the organization achieves what I like to call “porosity” – an advanced state of willingness to entertain new ideas and to absorb new information.

More than anything, leaders need to lead and let their teams know that they’re going to get their hands dirty and dig into the initiative along with everyone else. They must cut right to the quick, inspiring others to do likewise.

We already know that changing one person’s behavior is hard enough; changing a team’s way of operating can be exponentially more difficult. But by following these simple guidelines, and putting a challenge with a choice into the mix, you’ll vastly improve your organization’s chances of succeeding.


This article first appeared on Keith’s Linkedin blog. To get the latest from Keith, follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Keith Ferrazzi

Keith Ferrazzi


New York Times best-selling author, speaker


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