Changing the way we think about change

If there’s any hallmark of this era, it’s change — the unprecedented speed of change and the growing need for organizations and individuals to keep pace with it.

And yet, as organizations and individuals, we seem to be more comfortable getting into and staying in ruts — even when they are dangerous to our health and imperil our survival.

The problem, according to author Alan Deutschman, is that we often approach change in exactly the wrong way. My friend Tom Whitmore, a small business owner in the midst of his own changes, offers this review of Deutschman’s thought-provoking book Change or Die. (Thanks, Tom, for sharing this via Writer Way!)

Deutschman, Alan: CHANGE OR DIE
(Collins, NY, 2008; 246 pp, $14.95, ISBN-13 978-0-06-137367-1)

One of the more fascinating statistics in this book is that 90 percent of the people with serious heart disease who are prescribed statins stop taking them within a year. Statins have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks significantly. Why, if these people are facing a life-and-death situation, are they unwilling to change their lifestyles even to the extent of taking a pill or two a day for the rest of their lives? Just as few follow through on changing diet, exercise patterns, and taking up meditation. In Deutschman’s view, it’s because these patients are being approached in entirely the wrong way by their health care providers.

Health care providers, like our prison system and most of the CEOs of large companies, approach people with what Deutschman calls the Three Fs: facts, fears, and force. These are strong motivators for a short period. They don’t, however, lead to long-term change. Facts aren’t enough; fears are good for a while, but fatigue sets in, taking away fear’s power; and force generates rebellion. Anyone who uses these to try to motivate someone is very likely to get exactly the opposite result from what s/he seeks.

Instead of going for the head, Deutschman recommends going for the heart and using positive reinforcement. He puts forward three Rs instead: Relate, Repeat, and Reframe. Relating involves creating a new relationship, with an emotional component, with (generally) a new person — developing a reason for actually wanting the change. Repeating involves practicing what one wants to develop — “Fake it ’till you make it” is a standard way of saying this, used by Alcoholics Anonymous and others. Reframing involves changing the way one looks at a problem completely. Using long examples including the heart patients, convicted felons (at Delancey Street in San Francisco) and large corporations (GM and Toyota at the NUMMI plant), he demonstrates how well this approach can work. And he has lots of shorter anecdotes: these include how Microsoft engineers got Bill Gates to be a philanthropist and why AA works as well as it does for the people it works for.

It’s a simple and useful model. I can see how it’s been useful in my life, and how it describes why some of the changes I’ve made have worked well and others haven’t. It’s not a quick fix, and it’s going to work differently for each person who tries it. It doesn’t make the change any easier, and it probably doesn’t make it any faster. At least, now I have a model that I can check back against when I feel the change isn’t happening, and recalibrate my own reactions. I can recognize the people I’m Relating to, get myself over the hump of thinking I’m doing things badly as I Repeat them the first few times, and be open to recognizing when I’ve Reframed my world. And Deutschman gives me reasons to do that in my own way, which is very important to me.

If the book has a flaw, it’s that it doesn’t go far enough. Deutschman claims that his model is intended only for use when someone is seeking change and it isn’t happening, or isn’t happening quickly enough. And I think he misses a generalization: that this method of change may not be the only one, but it works powerfully in many more situations than the one he describes. It’s used subtly all the time we’re growing up: a good teacher is one who engages a student and builds a relationship, in school or in college. When someone starts a new job, he or she needs all three Rs to become a very useful part of the particular company he or she is working for. And there’s a darker side: these same techniques can be used subtly to initiate someone into what other people might think is a cult. Rotary International, the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church and the Weather Underground all use or used these techniques, sometimes consciously, to recruit members. Knowing about the dark side of these techniques gives me a chance to be conscious of when they’re being used to manipulate me. That’s a tool I want to have in my mental toolbox. Now I get to practice using it.

Tom Whitmore

Author: Karen Anderson

To paraphrase Mark Morris, "I'm a writer; I write!"

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