Influencing people to change

Change in an organisation never occurs without change in its people. In some restructuring events, the change in people may well be literal, with new people replacing others. In all organisational changes it means people changing one or more of their behaviours, processes or attitudes.

To influence people to change an environment must be created where their capability to change and the value of the change and their ability to realise the value must be greater than the cost of change and the risk of change (Fig 1).

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Figure 1 – The Required Environment to Influence People to Change

How we create that environment depends on the circumstances for each individual change considered. However, there are some general principles which are useful.

Their capability

A person’s capability consists of their knowledge, skills and behaviour.

Knowledge is easy to measure and relatively easy to improve. To be sure that your people have the knowledge required to change, test their knowledge. Then provide training that will increase their knowledge and then some experiences to cement the knowledge into their long term memory.

Skill is a bit more difficult. It is relatively easy to categorise the skills required. It is not as easy to design training and experiences that teach people a skill and give them enough practice to embed the skills into their daily work lives. Some people will not succeed with the new skill.

Behaviour is the most difficult of the three elements of capability. The old adage of poor recruitment, “Hire for knowledge and fire for behaviour”, rings true because it is very difficult to change behaviour.

Theory of planned behaviour tells us that for people to change their behaviours they have to believe their friends and family will support them and they have the necessary level of control to enact the change.

To build people’s beliefs in their capability to change, therefore, requires not only training and experiences to build new areas of knowledge and skills but also make sure that they are supported by their peers and superiors through any failures and are made to feel that they are controlling the pace of change.

Value of change

Value, from a personal perspective, always becomes “What is in it for me?” Only a very small minority of people reach a truly altruistic state in their life time. For example, a person who steps down for the good of the team is rarely doing so. They generally do so to be seen to be putting the team first or to be seen to be consistent with their stated values. It is their status as a “team player” or the opinions of others about their consistency which is important.

Thus, value is always determined by the individual concerned, not by the organisation and not as a group average.

To be successful in influencing people to change we must ensure that we really understand what people value individually. We must address our communication to the things which enough people value to make the change inevitable. We must also recognise it is unlikely that we will satisfy every person’s need for them to feel that the change is of value.

A common error made by many organisations, aside from not asking their people what they value, is using money as a trade off. Except when people are truly struggling to feed and clothe their children or pay their mortgage, money is of short term value only.

Another error often made is to ask people directly what they would prefer. People’s attitudes and beliefs are a bit more complicated than that. They tend not to sit at the surface. Simple questionnaires usually do not find out what people really value. If you want to know what your people value, use a professional to help you.

Ability to realise value

It is one thing to create value for people in change. It is quite another for them to be convinced they have the ability to realise that value. I think that is why so many organisations revert to money. It is very easy to realise the value if we use money.

We must demonstrate to people how they can personally access value created by change. For example, if we use elements of value such as career opportunities and personal growth, clear and accessible pathways must be mapped out. It must be clear to people how their career may be advanced. It must be clear how new skills and knowledge will benefit them, even if it is in terms of future job security.

We must not put up bureaucratic barriers to people’s realisation of value.


Cost, like value, is personal. Cost can come in many guises, for example:

  • Giving up old habits
  • Giving up status as the best in a particular skill or knowledge area
  • Giving up a familial environment with colleagues and friends I have worked with for a long time
  • Changing geographic location
  • Changing work location within an office
  • Changing working hours.


Risk is usually seen by most people as an unwanted outcome. People subject to change usually do not separate risk out into an event with a probability of it happening and a severity of its consequence. It is up to us to do that for them.

We must work with our people not only to find what they value but also what they fear. We must have a clear plan to reduce the probability of events occurring and the consequence should they occur. We must communicate our plan to reduce the probability of specific events occurring in the language of our people. We must be unequivocal about what we will do if, even though it is unlikely, that an event occurs.


People tend to be amenable to change. They prove it by undertaking change in their personal lives many times. What they do not like is the transition. It is up to us as leaders to convince them that they are able to create and access value from the change that makes it worthwhile to go through the transition.

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