A Reminder to Innovators: Change Is About Values and Identity

We know that change is hard, especially when (as it usually does) it involves changing the behaviour of human beings. Can we argue or persuade our way through this kind of change?

According to transformation expert Greg Satell, the answer is a resounding NO!

First, some background. Legal professionals are taught that success depends on sound and logical arguments to persuade the other party(ies) or a decision-maker of the rightness of the client’s position. Most of us are also firmly connected to the need to be “right”. While this approach may suit our adversarial system, it can create a significant blind spot when it comes to changing beliefs or behaviours. To achieve change in a complex system we are really talking about changing human beings and their (sometimes inexplicable) behaviour. That requires grappling with individual needs, values and identities (who we want to be). Education and persuasion are important but not enough.

This is not a new thought. For example, in her New Yorker article “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds”, Elizabeth Kolbert traces decades of research that supports this conclusion.

While this may seem self-evident, I often find myself automatically reverting to the “I will convince you with my powerful, rational argument” approach. I may also resist changing my own behaviour if I fear having to admit that I was “wrong” or do not have the required skillset to implement a new practice.

In his article “Why Change Fails”, Greg Satell describes the nature and enormity of change we are all dealing with today and, using pandemic-related examples, points out that “any significant change will involve changing people’s beliefs and behaviours and that is a different matter…” He reminds us that people do not make decisions based on rational calculations of utility. Instead, “they crave dignity and recognition, to be valued, in other words, as ends in themselves rather than as merely means to an end.

The excerpt that really caught my attention was the following:

The biggest misconception about change is that once people understand it, they will embrace and so the best way to drive change forward is to explain the need for change in a very convincing and persuasive way. Change, in this view, is essentially a communication exercise and
the right combination of words and images is all that is required.

Yet as should be clear by now that is clearly not true. People will often oppose change because it asks them to alter their identity.

…In other words, change is always, at some level, about what people value. That’s why to bring change about you need to identify shared values that reaffirm, rather than undermine, people’s sense of identity. Recognition is often a more powerful incentive than even financial rewards. In the final analysis, lasting change always needs to be built on common ground.

Many innovative change initiatives will inevitably require legal professionals and stakeholders to change their practice models – the way they DO their day-to-day business. These practices are often deeply embedded in the firm or organization’s culture and identity: “This is how we do things around here.” Such beliefs and practices won’t shift easily or quickly because of persuasive logic alone. Satell’s article reminds us that change will happen when the individual professional connects with the need to shift at an identity/values level. At the heart level.

Most family legal professionals (including lawyers, judges, mediators and arbitrators) see themselves as people who care deeply about families and their children and strive to support their well-being. This insight can lead to a deeper dialogue about their professional values and identities.

As innovators, we need to be more curious and listen more than we talk. We need to be intentional about how we frame the challenge and we need to collaborate with those whose participation is necessary to making change. This applies especially to those on the “front lines” who are directly serving the public. Deeper questions might include: What is most important to you about this issue/challenge? What are your values and goals? How could an initiative support you in achieving those goals? What do you see as the barriers to trying a different practice model? What do you need to overcome those barriers?

Change is indeed hard, but it is not impossible if we engage both hearts and minds.

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