Mindful Change: The Key to Successful Influence


image“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” — Desmond Tutu

Why do many leadership efforts and organizational change initiatives fail?

Because too many change efforts fail to take into account the physiology of resistance.

Luckily, there are some new insights that can help shape new management practices. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz summarize some counter-intuitive conclusions in their article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership”, in strategy+business magazine.

Breakthroughs in Cognitive Science

Rock and Schwartz write the following:

“Managers who understand the recent breakthroughs in cognitive science can lead and influence mindful change: organizational transformation that takes into account the physiological nature of the brain, and the ways in which it predisposes people to resist some forms of leadership and accept others.

This does not imply that management – of change or anything else – is a science. There is a great deal of art and craft in it. But several conclusions about organizational change can be drawn that make the art and craft far more effective.

These conclusions would have been considered counterintuitive or downright wrong only a few years ago.”

The Counterintuitive Conclusions of Change and Resistance

Rock and Schwartz identify the following conclusions:

  1. Change is pain. Organizational change is unexpectedly difficult because it provokes sensations of physiological discomfort. (See Working Memory vs. Routine Activity)
  2. Behaviorism doesn’t work. Change efforts based on incentive and threat (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run.
  3. Humanism is overrated. In practice, the conventional empathic approach of connection and persuasion doesn’t sufficiently engage people.  In theory, the person-centered approach might be an effective solution but there is rarely time to go through this process with employees and guarantee that it will produce the desired results.
  4. Focus is power. The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain.
  5. Expectation shapes reality. People’s preconceptions have a significant impact on what they perceive.
  6. Attention shapes identity. Repeated, purposeful, and focused attention can lead to long-lasting personal evolution.

Resistance isn’t futile.  It’s human nature.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Lead a horse to water.  The most meaningful changes come from within.   It’s more effective and efficient to help others come to their own insights.
  • Ask solution-focused questions.  Stay solution-focused rather than dwelling on problems.  See Solution-Focused Questions and Asking Better Questions.
  • See the end in mind.  Focus conscious attention on the improved result.  See How To Paint a Future Picture and Step Into Your Future.
  • Measure the approach, not just results.  You get what you measure.  More importantly, you pay attention to what you measure.  Just paying attention to something can open up opportunities for improvement.

I’m not actually surprised by the conclusions.  I see these conclusions show up in my day to day.


  1. Changes create the rhythm in our life. Without changes our lives would be very flat and uneventful. Yes, sometimes change can be stressful, and our initial reaction might be, “Changes are bad!” But if you look closely, changes are opportunities under cover.

    Take Richard Schulze founder of Best Buy, because of his ability to deal with changes, a tornado became his best friend…

    Thank you,
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  2. “Lead a horse to water.” – I completely agree. Organizations need to own the change.

  3. “The most meaningful changes come from within” – oi, ai, oohm ahhh!!!
    That … is…. so… true. OMG. Sorry, could not hold it back!
    This one proves again and again. When working with my customers i am often hit by “let’s go through the round of approvals and then start”. My answer is usually “Hell, no! You want it happen or you want to be dead by alignment?…”

    Lead the horse to the water! What a mantra! You never shared it before 😉

  4. And I think that could really work anytime you have someone to motivate, or have to make them do what they hope they will do, even if it’s just with one person.

    Gret stuff! I need to try it out on my daughter. Especially the great expectations thoughts, shape a bunch of reality!

  5. Hi, great post as usual JD!

    In every business change is often a time where everyone finds themselves a bit off balance. Like when a new technology is introduced it takes some time for all employees to adjust let alone working through the kinks in technology. After awhile everyting smooths out and the change is habit once again.

    I too like the lead a horse to water.

  6. Sometimes I just get tired and don’t want to try anymore…

    oh that old focus thing…yep a good one

    A good post, I am just not here tonight…but I now know where it is when I am ready 🙂

  7. @ Giovanna

    You have a really good view of change and that’s the key – opportunities. I like to think of it as “drive or be driven” or “play the ball or the ball plays you.”

    @ Stacey

    I used to underestimate motivation. Now I appreciate how motivation and capability go hand in hand. Such little questions help so much …”are they skilled to do it?” … “do they want to do it?” I find it so true that where there’s a will there’s a way.

    @ Alik

    Sounds like it hit a sweet spot 😉

    Death by alignment is such a horrible way to go. I’ve seen too many awesome idea go from great to awful from too many rounds with too many chefs in the pot.

    @ Jannie

    Motivation can make or break results. I used to fall for red herrings, now I just ask simpler questions like, “what’s the concern?” when I sense apprehension or “what do you want to do?” A couple questions go a long way.

    Molding minds is a powerful thing. I’m still surprised how many lessons I learned from my parents, althought I didn’t know it at the time.

    @ Diane

    Thank you.

    As one of my mentors put it to me, that’s what growth feels like. It feels awkward. When he put it that way, all the funny pains of change made so much more sense.

    @ Patricia

    Downtime is a great way to recharge. I savor my downtime. I use to fight the cycle when I didn’t realize I was in a cycle, now I just go with my flow.

  8. I totally with the key take aways.

    Changes are inevitable anywhere, anytime.
    Changes are important in order to improve and grow, personal or business. Before change and improvements can be expected from the people, the leaders themselves (both top to mid-management) must first change and move with time.

    That’s why they say “Leadership by Example”.

  9. Leading a horse to water really resonates. I know i’ve made an impact when i hear my ideas echoed back by others as if they were their own. When others internalize your ideas for change and it becomes bigger than yourself you can step back and know that you’ve made a real self-sustaining change.

  10. @ Wenny

    I’m a fan of lead by example. I think first-hand experience helps shape better decisions and at least helps with empathy.

    @ Jason

    That’s a great test for success. If you’re the only champ of your ideas, you know something is broken.

  11. It was cool to see you expound on the Great Expectations in your next post!

    And yeah, the older I get, the smarter my folks have gotten too 😉

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