A Change Would Do You Good

October 12, 2016, Roger Bolton

A panel discussion about change at the Page Society's Future Leaders Experience in New York last week got me thinking about how chief communication officers (CCOs) can help their enterprises make the case for change.

FLE session convener Wendi Strong, former CCO of USAA, asked if it's better to focus on the negative consequences of failing to change or the positive benefits of changing. The question referenced a gain frame/loss frame paradigm mentioned in an earlier presentation by Christopher Graves, global chair of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, who has invested eight years in the study of brain science.

Generally speaking, Chris said, brain science shows that the fear of negative consequences is two to three times more motivating of behavior change than the anticipation of positive benefits. Even then, humans are highly capable of rationalizing a way to stick with the status quo.

Reflecting upon my own experience, I developed a hypothesis: I think you need both – the negative consequences to drive acceptance of the need to change, and the positive benefits to motivate the actions that change requires.

My experience suggests that it is often easier to undertake fundamental and uncomfortable change when the enterprise comes to the conclusion that it has no choice. When I was at Aetna, our company's business model became so controversial and rejected by stakeholders and its performance so deteriorated that it became abundantly clear to most of us that we had to change to survive.

I recognize that such a consensus is not always so readily apparent. In those cases, it's incumbent upon leaders to help stakeholders see the existential threat before it's inexorable. Good communication and effective storytelling are critical.

Once the willingness to change has been established, the question becomes, change to what? That's where the positive motivation to act comes into play. Again based on experience, I believe purpose is highly motivating, along with a convincing story that the company and the individual can not only survive, but thrive.

At Aetna, our new leaders, CEO Jack Rowe and President Ron Williams, sketched out a vision for a new business model that they believed would produce a company turnaround. It involved a huge bet that physicians and patients could be motivated to adhere to evidence-based medical practices if they were convinced by data. That meant we would increasingly rely on the good will and good sense of others to achieve the cost control that business success required. Virtually everyone in the company would be obligated to learn new ways of working.

Our employees' willingness to take the journey proposed by Jack and Ron developed over time as the leaders forged with them a shared belief that the new approach would help Aetna's members achieve health and financial security and that, in return, the company's business would rebound and prosper.

It was a long path, and there was plenty of skepticism at first. The pain of layoffs and difficult changes necessarily preceded any tangible results. Jack and Ron worked hard to be realistic about the difficulties while simultaneously celebrating even small successes. Their ongoing mantra was under-promise and over-deliver.

It took six years of hard work, but the people did change and the Aetna story became one of the most successful business turnarounds ever, marked by high employee engagement and pride, new respect from doctors and patients and a 700 percent increase in market capitalization.

For CCOs seeking to help their enterprises build the case for change, my advice is to craft an authentic and convincing story that there is really no choice, combined with a compelling vision of a brighter future. I know: easier said than done. That's why the work we do is so important in this time of disruption and constant change.

For inspiration, see Sheryl Crow.


Great article, Roger - and I love the reference to Sheryl Crow's song. Back in the late 90s, when I was in Denmark and helping The Borealis Group go group a merger, we used that as the theme song of our internal campaign for employees.
Thanks, Dawn. I also try to keep in mind that sometimes it's just good to Soak Up the Sun.
There are interesting parallels here with behavioral change studies in health communication related to the role of fear as a motivator. While it seems obvious that the dire health consequences of bad habits (such as smoking) should be a motivation to change, research found the scare approach tended to shut people down and led to no change. Fear messages coupled with clear, actionable (the easier the better) steps were found to be more productive, and the positives just on their own were better than the negative on its own. A powerful way to make those changes easier is to substitute habits directly, new ones for old ones. For example take a walk for 5 minutes when you're pining for that smoke. So a compelling vision of a brighter future is key, but so are the new and ideally simple processes that teams and organizations should quickly put in place that make the path to that vision attainable. Break old habits and form new ones. Perhaps not dissimilar to General Schwarzkopf's quip that 90% of success in war is logistics.
Greg, Roger, There is a large and growing body of research related to gain frame vs loss frame messaging in healthcare. Some purport to find that loss frames work better when it comes to interventions such as getting a colonoscopy. But gain frames may work better when it comes to chronic issues such as combatting obesity to head off diabetes. Gain frames work better to get young people to wear sun screen than threats of cancer. So I never said it is about "fear." In behavioral science, a loss frame is more about loss aversion (avoiding a loss) than bullying by fear tactics. When it comes to smoking cessation, cited by Greg, see this research on the power of gain frames, for example: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18072836 But if you go too far in a fear approach, it backfires as this research study found: http://www.sciencenewsline.com/news/2011082304120023.html And when it comes to sunscreen, beyond gain frames, another barrier must be overcome-- temporal discounting. That means humans discount the future (benefits or costs) to zero--unless you find cleve ways of bringing the future into the present as famed author Dan Pink did in this NatGeo show: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/crowd-control/videos/sun-scream/ When it comes to a corporate culture change approach, Steve Denning says you must wake up employees with an existential threat, but then offer a brighter vision of a shared future (Get attention >> Stimulate desire >> Reinforce with reasons). See Denning on narratives for change here: http://www.stevedenning.com/Documents/Ch-1.pdf
Thanks Christopher, great insights. To your three part process on corporate culture change, "Get attention >> Stimulate desire >> Reinforce with reasons," I would add a fourth: Establish new processes/habits.
Thanks, Chris, for this thorough and thoughtful clarification and explication. Point taken on "fear." Loss avoidance is better. At Aetna, we weren't afraid, really, just convinced that change was the only way to avoid the by-then obvious inevitability of failure. The Denning formula is terrific. It rings true based on my Aetna experience. Thanks again for presenting at FLE. As you can tell by the premise for my piece, your ideas permeated the discussions for the rest of the event.
Well said, Greg. And for motivation to develop those habits, establishing processes (as you said) works well. At Aetna, we linked employee survey results regarding the behaviors called for in our values to every manager's performance objectives.