A Look at How to Teach Old Dogs New Tricks

Consultant tells managers how to overcome employee inertia. INTERVIEW

EMPLOYEES do not thrive on change.

When companies have to be downsized or restructured, the buildings, telephones, and machines don't get angry and frustrated; people do.

Management consultant Jerald Jellison, who recently published "Overcoming Resistance" (Simon & Schuster, $19), has a different strategy in mind for managing change.

In a recent interview, he argued that managers with the right tools can produce orderly, incremental changes in the way their workers perform. And when change occurs steadily, companies will not fall so far behind their competitors that they require wholesale, wrenching restructuring that often leaves hundreds or thousands of employees in the street.

That theory sounds great. But if it is so simple, why don't managers make those necessary adjustments? Because employees always resist change, he says.

Dr. Jellison, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, says that prevailing psychological theories actually help to reinforce inertia on the part of managers and employees.

"Psychology has really misled us," he says. "It has led us to believe that people are fixed in their ways and that's the way they are going to be forever; that's a very pessimistic conclusion."

To change this unproductive attitude, managers obviously need some new approaches. Jellison has a few suggestions.

The first step, he says, is for managers to make their desire for change more concrete by lowering the "altitude" of the requests they make of employees. They have to translate up-in-the-clouds requests "down to ground level."

He gives an example: A company president couldn't understand his key managers' lack of initiative. Requesting "more initiative" again and again had failed to achieve results. So he came down a level and asked them to "generate new ideas." Then he went another level lower, asking them to come up with ideas "about the way paperwork was being handled." That was getting close. But when he requested that on the first Monday of every month, each department manager give him a written description of a new proced ure being instituted to minimize paperwork, he hit "ground zero."

Once an employee grasps what the manager wants him to do, that does not mean he will do it. Employees simply reach into their bag of time-honored excuses such as: "I'm not a numbers person," "I'm not the creative type," "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," and the famous "Let me see if I understand what you mean" (followed by a completely garbled reinterpretation of what was just requested).

Jellison's arsenal is prepared for these situations.

His chief weapon is the "bamboo" technique. It is so named because the manager, when confronted with resistance to a concrete request, first bends like a bamboo reed: "I can imagine that this isn't pleasant to hear. My goal isn't to upset you but simply to make a change that will improve things for both of us."

Then the manager snaps back with a request for change stated in an "if ... then" formulation: IF certain concrete actions are taken, THEN certain desirable consequences will result.

"Alter the consequences of the other person's actions, so that it is more beneficial for them to do what you want than to do the opposite," Jellison writes. "Rather than looking back into a person's past, look to the consequences in the here and now."

Jellison's approach holds that people change primarily because of new parameters they find in their present situation, rarely on the basis of an analysis of past limitations.

"So much of social science focuses on changing people's attitudes - getting people to understand things," Jellison says. But "there is not a good relationship between changing people's attitudes and changing their behavior."

In addition to teaching psychology, Jellison serves as president of the credit union at the University of Southern California. "I realized that I don't want employees to understand how we treat our customers when they come up to the counter," he says. "I want them to actually smile, to greet customers, and be friendly."

The management goal is orderly, concrete change.

"Despite what traditional psychological theories assert," Jellison writes, "neither your behavior, nor anyone else's behavior, has to be a mere repetition of past patterns."

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