Don’t forget humans in your transformation

Don’t forget humans in your transformation

When teams are dysfunctional, users don’t get it and failure just feels wrong.

Credit: © Olivier Le Moal |

Everyone is talking about the transformation that enterprises must undergo. However, the gap between ambition and execution is widening as transformations stall or flail. It’s often because people change far more slowly than technology.

Giving your team autonomy, listening to your users and embracing fast failure is right in theory. But the most detailed plans and the best intentions are no match for the emotional dissonance that occurs in the reality of the moment – when teams are dysfunctional, users don’t get it and failure just feels wrong.

Reason doesn’t reign supreme in the workplace. Humans are deeply irrational, but in predictable ways. They suffer from cognitive bias, particularly the familiarity of going back to what they know as uncertainty rises.

Humans are subject to emotional triggers where their reaction doesn’t rationally correspond to the stimulus. They also tend toward conditioned behaviours that are difficult to relinquish, even in the face of rational reasons for doing so. 

Yet employees are treated as if they are reasonable and rational, even during the turbulence of transformation.

Weathering the neuroscientific storm

Most arguments for change in the corporate world are intellectual. There’s often talk of the increasing pace of change, the threat of disruption, the need to be “one enterprise” and the changing expectations of customers. All of these are rational, cerebral arguments, often communicated in dry bullet points and slides.

Many pay lip service to the emotional side of change, but don’t use as much rigour here as they do to planning the development and rollout of new processes or technologies.

Transformation contains the perfect neuroscientific storm to impede change. CIOs must begin reading more in the domains of psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics to better equip themselves to deal with the human dimension.

There are four predictable psychological hot spots that CIOs often underestimate, but need to be aware of to help accelerate transformation.

1.     Cognitive dissonance 

Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person technically understands that change is necessary, but emotionally feels uncomfortable with it. 

Imagine an experienced project manager who takes a Scrum course. Technically, they understand that the promised agility comes largely from autonomous, self-managing teams. But emotionally, they want the former control they had.

Anywhere a 180-degree shift in belief is required — from control to autonomy, or from centralisation to decentralisation — expect cognitive dissonance. The shift is so great that no matter how many times you explain it, it just feels wrong.

Spend more time communicating in those areas to mitigate dissonance. Give cognitive dissonance a name and discuss it with employees, so they can identify when it’s happening to them or those they manage.

2. Emotional triggers

An emotional trigger is an action or occurrence that appears to be innocuous, but incites an exaggerated reaction, usually negative. Threats to fairness or status, for example, often trigger big reactions even when individuals don’t understand themselves why they’re angry.

Increase awareness of your emotional triggers and those of your team. Include triggers even when they appear to be irrational.

Road rage, for example, doesn’t really make sense when you think about it rationally. So what if someone cut you off on your commute to work? In the grand scheme of things, that’s a small action, yet it’s a major emotional trigger for many because it feels unfair and uncivil.

Take time to acknowledge triggers as they occur and train on techniques to avoid the spontaneous reaction – take a deep breath, invoke a mental model, etc.

3. Delayed gratification 

Lots of transformation involves delayed gratification, in which employees are asked to do laborious, upfront work, so they can experience rather unclear benefits later on that aren’t necessarily even going to impact them. 

This is affectionately known as the kale-chocolate problem. We know we’re supposed to eat leafy greens, but many would prefer to eat chocolate. Transformation is often like eating kale. It’s good for us and will deliver lots of long-term benefits. But, we might prefer the instant gratification of chocolate. 

If you’re trying to corral all your structured and unstructured data to perform cool, advanced analytics, for example, this is a long, laborious process. This is the kale. It will deliver great future benefits, but for now it’s hard. Why not create a simple data visualisation tool along the way that shows some interesting, maybe quirky, data in a fun way? This is the chocolate. 

Have a “chocolate list” of small, contained projects or products that will deliver more instant returns along the way to help employees stay on course and do the laborious work.

4. Cognitive strain

When someone rejects a change, such as a new system implementation, it may not be because of inferior features or functions of the system. Often, it’s because things are now hard as users learn how the new system works, in an area that used to be easy.

This throws them into cognitive strain, which is uncomfortable because it feels effortful and difficult, even though many changes will actually end up leaving them better off. 

Make every effort to reduce cognitive strain when introducing something new. Be specific and prescriptive about what their first steps should be. Also, remove any friction that stands in the way of people making the change you want them to make.

Mary Mesaglio is a distinguished VP analyst at Gartner. She is focused on helping CIOs to transform, innovate and change the culture of their organisations, particularly how to harness neuroscience to lead teams and change behaviours.

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