I think it’s human nature to be intrigued by what makes people tick. Personally, I’m fascinated by how our minds can do amazing things, yet at the same time can lead us down dark paths (cue Julie sharing her favourite facts about serial killers). This fascination is why I decided to study a postgraduate degree in Psychology and later chose to start my career in consulting.
In a small silver lining, COVID-19 has been a fantastic opportunity for me to meld psychology and consulting by helping clients adapt to new ways of working. No, this isn’t yet another blog on working from home or hybrid working (#oldnews), but rather how psychological insights can help clients navigate new ways of working.
One of the first projects I was involved in at AABConsulting involved helping a higher education institution evolve given vast societal, technological, and physical environment changes. Let’s put ourselves in the client’s shoes for a moment and imagine a hypothetical scenario.
Professor B began her scientific career as an undergraduate student many years ago. All the way through her challenging PhD and post-doc positions, she dreamed of following in the path of her favourite professor, managing her own research projects in laboratories with impressive equipment, even having her own office where people would come knocking to ask her expert opinion on the latest theories. Whilst Professor B has had her head in books, striving to achieve her life-long ambition – ways of working have evolved dramatically. If that wasn’t enough, a national pandemic has meant her long-held dream of a prestigious office on university grounds is now a small table in her home’s box room.
It sounds like a disappointing change of events from Professor B’s perspective. But this current moment in history presents plentiful opportunities for us all – we just need to transform our perspectives. Encouraging this sort of change amongst large groups of people involves altering beliefs, behaviours and actions. As consultants, we have the tools to help people navigate these deep cultural shifts. We need to understand Professor B’s current mindset - as well as her students, colleagues, and peers - to encourage everyone to embrace and thrive in the new order of things. Here are three ways we can use psychology to improve the adoption of change plans.
Personalise the plan - people (customers, clients, students, employees, or colleagues) are unique in every way and their worlds are constantly in a state of flux. Applying a blanket approach to encourage them to work in new ways, especially where that involves a significant departure from what they did before, won’t serve us well. People’s contributions need to make sense to them as individuals. Any plans proposed must provide something for everyone to believe in on a personal level. Without this, Leon Festinger  theorised, one may experience ‘cognitive dissonance’- a distressing mental state found when people’s beliefs and actions are unaligned. So, in the case of Professor B, if she believes in the benefits of changing the overall way of working within the institution, it will encourage her to alter her behaviours accordingly. If we want Professor B to engage with the change enthusiastically, she must understand how her individual actions are key to influencing a new culture and in turn, key to the success of the overall project!
“Walk the talk” – most clinical research confirms that consistent role models are one of the most important factors in changing the behaviour of adults. In the professional world, role models must exist at every level, not just in senior management. Whatever values are close to the heart of your organisation are the values that must shine through in the behaviour of all role models involved. So, having clear values is also crucial. For example, at AABConsulting, our values are:
- Not letting each other down
- Delivering quality work
- Providing solutions, and
- Believing in people
Agreeing on the values that underpin your organisational culture is a great task to do collectively. It helps everyone get on-board with the values and helps articulate a path for moving forward as well.
And finally, reflection - what works today will need to be revised tomorrow – so reflection and course correction is inevitable. Reflection is key to staying in tune with clients, customers and more generally, the world around us. Unfortunately, it often contrasts with the environment we can find ourselves in – goal orientated and analytical. Practicing reflection at all stages during a project allows plans to be revised when necessary, enabling us to provide the correct guidance and support to all team members. As well as helping us stay in tune with the world around us, reflective thinking helps us to think creatively, come up with fresh insights and solutions, and brings new awareness to relationships and work – in psychological terms ‘response flexibility’ . Donald Altman sees reflection as a new awareness, key to maintaining human connection in a digital age. Although it has always been important for organisations to constantly reflect the evolution of the world around us, it is more important now than ever as we emerge from two years of pandemic life. Looking ahead, we will face many key challenges from global instability to climate change, that will require large-scale change. To manage large-scale change effectively, I’ve learned how crucial it is to empathise with the client, personalise the plan, ensure role models are in place, and finally, to reflect and course correct accordingly. (And our hypothetical professor B learned that her home office wasn’t so doom & gloom after all.) Hopefully by sharing some of the insights I’ve gained from my learning journey, anyone finding themselves solving similar challenges might appreciate this helping hand from a psychological perspective .
 Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.
 Altman, D. (2019). Reflect. [S.l.]: Pesi Publishing & Media.
 Some insights developed from McKinsey Quarterly, “The psychology of change management" (accessed: 19/03/2022)
Photo courtesy of Changbok Ko via Unsplash