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I have sometimes joked that this is the ultimate change management tool.

People I have said it to have generally found it funny. Because we recognise the underlying truth about change – no one likes to be made to change from the outside!

Can you remember a time when someone told you you should/shouldn’t do something? Did you immediately get a kick of defiance in your head? “No, I won’t/will!”

Depending on your personality, this reaction may have been fleeting and quickly dismissed. For others it may have been more subconscious, resulting in a period of unease or upset.

Externally imposed change is hard to stomach because it directly threatens our sense of autonomy. Nothing takes away autonomy than being beaten with a stick!

There are of course degrees of imposition. At one end is the awareness and encouragement carrot approach; where the reasons for change are presented and participants are encouraged to see the rationale and take up the change themselves. At the other end is the directive and punitive stick approach; where you will change according to specifications and on schedule or else.

The carrot approach is harder to do, less immediately effective, but with more lasting effect. The stick approach is easier to implement and measure, but the effects tend to disappear as soon as the stick is removed. Understandably, many organisations, with their short-term focus, find the latter a more attractive option.

Choosing to impose change on others is also attractive because it places responsibility for action onto others. We don’t have to examine ourselves or change ourselves. Our problems will be fixed when they change their behaviours. We don’t have to improve our management style, or systems and processes. We don’t have to consider the possibility that we may have been doing things wrong, or that we may not know everything.

In the long run, this approach disempower us – because we have effectively made our success and wellbeing dependant on the actions of others. Others over which we have little control.

Have you caught yourself thinking the following?

  • My life will be fixed when THEY change.
  • The world will be a better place when I change THEM.
  • It’s all THEIR fault so it is THEM who needs to change.

Image: Wooden mace via Shutterstock.