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3 Ways to Expand the OK Zone and Spark Organizational Change

Most of us barely have time to slow down and assess a better way forward. Like all collective bodies, a company or large group adopts a herd mentality to react to imminent and immediate threats to the bottom line. This vicious cycle leads to systemic trauma that radiates throughout the entire organization – a silent virus fueled by bewilderment, distrust and chronic stress. Renowned neuroscientist David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, describes this debilitating brain drain as such:

Although a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction […] the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. When people feel betrayed or unrecognized […] they experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful or painful as a blow to the head. Most people who work in companies rationalize or temper their reactions; they “suck it up,” as the common parlance puts it. But they also limit their commitment and engagement. They become purely transactional employees.

So how do you persuade your team to make the small changes necessary to realize a better future despite reeling from daily “organizational trauma?” Here are three questions you should ask yourself before planting the seeds of change:

1. Am I the best person to deliver the message?

Our perceptions aren’t just based on actions, but even more so on appearance. Though we like to think we live in a “no judgment” world of universal acceptance, it’s instinctive to size up another person and determine in a matter of seconds if they are a potential friend or foe. Unconscious bias just confirms that first impressions are everything and they are hard to change.

We hear this from young millennial leaders across the organizational spectrum. They have new ideas and creative solutions they want to implement as quickly as possible, since they know how urgently it’s needed, but keep hitting road blocks when they pitch it to their Gen X superiors. They present the problem, and offer up a solution that has mountains of data and projections to back it up, but they still can’t secure the necessary buy-in. Sure their bosses acknowledge that there’s a problem, but they are understandably fearful of all the moving parts and how radical a departure it may be from an imperfect but safe process. And as one recent business school grad put frankly – “My boss isn’t convinced that I’m not going to jump ship like ‘every other millennial’ if my innovative ideas aren’t taken seriously. He’s just not convinced I’m as committed to the company as he is.”

But once I started to ask a few more questions about his approach, we both started to realize that it was insane to for him alone to keep nudging his boss every couple of weeks and expect an endorsement. More importantly, he had only been at the company for a couple of months before he started trying to shake things up. Though millennials now represent the majority of the labor force – Gen Xers still hold most of the mid and upper-level management positions – and expect younger workers to prove their worth before ‘evangelizing’ for change. Sometimes you need a different voice to vouch for you and demonstrate value. I advised him to stop nagging his boss for instant gratification and try to recruit a few other veteran account managers to start adopting aspects of his new client management process. Once he built a coalition of willing and respected colleagues to pilot his new strategy, the results soon spoke for themselves. It didn’t take long for his boss to praise him for “taking the initiative” and “rallying the troops” to forge a better way forward.

2. How do I convince someone to change their behavior?

We tend to gravitate toward people we already relate with. Opposites attract, but most healthy friendships and marriages persist and grow stronger because of parallel attitudes and beliefs. Social judgment theory calls this area the latitude of acceptance, but is now commonly referred to as the “OK Zone.” It’s very important to respect your audience’s zones of tolerance since any idea that falls outside of it is not only rejected, but likely any other ideas proposed to them. If you walked up to someone in the store buying frozen food and shouted at them – ‘What are you doing? Are you stupid? How could you feed your children that processed garbage?’ – how would you expect them to react? Would they smile and say, ‘You know what, you’re right, I can’t believe I buy this stuff every week. Thanks for your concern!’ – or scowl and scream back -‘How dare you tell me how to feed my children! Get away from me or I’m calling the cops!’? This is a bit of an extreme example, but it perfectly illustrates the wrong way to try and change someone’s attitude that dictates daily habits and behaviors. The concern and passion for eating healthier food is on full display, but the vehement tone of judgment and condescension was received as such and only made her less likely to change her mind and more likely to find a new grocery store.

A better approach is to assess and validate someone’s OK Zone to establish what their stance on any issue is before trying to present your case. Instead of going right for the judgmental jugular, it’s critical to establish where the existing beliefs are and take baby steps toward changing them. If the first slide of my keynote presentations began with ‘You are all unhealthy, unfocused and underperforming’ in all caps, every audience member would either by mildly offended or tune me out completely. That’s why all great speakers and change agents start with open-ended questions to find consensus right away. I usually ask two simple questions to set the tone and establish trust with the audience:

“What’s the most valuable asset of any organization?”

“PEOPLE!!”

“That’s right! And what’s your people’s most valuable asset?”

The silence is deafening at this point, since it’s a deduction no one is expecting to make at an event like this. They expected me to rile them up about the virtues of a healthy lifestyle, not throw this curveball at them. This is when I know I have their full attention and best chance for understanding the answer (which is your HEALTH of course)!

It’s not that hard once you understand the right method:

1. Find their OK Zone – Everyone agrees people are an organization’s most valuable asset.

2. Baby Steps – A person’s health is their most valuable asset.

3. Solution – Invest in your people’s health to fulfill and exceed your organization’s purpose.

3. How do I convince large groups of people to change course quickly?

In order to create and sustain changes at a larger scale, we need to focus on the factors behind social influence and the key factors that determine the dynamics of how large groups interact. Social impact theory, developed by psychologist Bibb Latane in 1981, uses a relatively simple equation to predict the level of social impact for any given situation:

Impact = Strength x Immediacy x Number of People

Any good leader knows they can’t advocate for change alone, but better leaders know they need to recruit the strongest supporters to help create a sense of urgency to realize the change they seek.

Nothing provokes action faster than scarcity in business. Scarcity bias is the clinical term for this primal need to value something more when there’s seemingly less of it. If you present enough evidence that your company’s biggest competitor is eating away market share at an alarming rate, you better believe executives will be compelled to act quickly to mitigate their losses.

The capacity for change is arguably the most defining and rewarding part of being alive. Humans have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years through adopting and refining better ideas over all else. You have the power to spark immense change within any organization. Like anything else in life, it’s all about strategy and execution. We can move mountains if we start finding common ground and plotting a better path forward together.

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