Monday, November 11, 2013


One of my current projects involves change.  Not change of the routine garden variety, like learning a new route around the supermarket when the floor plan has changed, or managing a new operating system, or even working with a new person.  We’re talking serious change that requires from the people affected a paradigm shift in thinking.   In that context, the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (2010) by the Heath brothers (Dan and Chip) has been a compelling read.

“Oh, Yvette, a parcel came for you,”  our office assistant says as she hands me a heavy, bulky brown envelope, padded with bubble paper.  I stare at the return address all the back to my office, but can’t make sense of it.  The weight  of the package and its odd shape point to books, but I can’t imagine a source.  I haven’t ordered anything, and I’m not expecting anything either.  I reach for the scissors, trim a sliver from the top of the package, and reach in.  I pull out a note from my friend and colleague:  Thanks so much for sharing your process and experience with us.  I reach in again—three books, the first of which is Switch. 

Now the compulsion to read kicks in.  Resistance is futile.  I can’t get a new book and just leave it alone unscanned and unpaged until I have time.  It will call me until I give in.  There’s no continuing  my work until I have succombed.  Perhaps you feel the same way.  Having now read the title and surmised my endorsment, you might be interested in tidbits from the book.  I would be happy to oblige.  Three critical snippets from Switch follow.

1.    The Fundamental Attribution Error
is an articulation of Stanford University psychologist Lee Ross who noted  that “people have a systemic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behaviour” (p. 180).      The Switch authors, Heath and Heath, maintain that, when things go wrong, we tend to blame the character of the people rather than factor in the contribution of the context to the outcome.  They extrapolate from Ross: “The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (p. 180; authors' italics).    
So, for example, if a colleague misses a meeting, we might assume negligence rather  than concluding that an emergency might have come up preventing the individual from communicating an absence.  In another context, we might ascribe a student’s inability to meet a deadline to lack of planning or foresight rather than to legitimate roadblocks to finishing on time.  Both of these cases would be examples of The Fundamental Attribution Error.  This principle underlines a belief I have long held: to cultivate a harmonious atmosphere in the workplace,  all must work from a positive premise, that every person in the organization desires a successful result, and is doing his or her best to bring that about.  In that way, people are able to assume the positive.  When challenges occur, they are able to focus on the problem and deal with it without letting emotions interfere.

2.    Communication and Change
Following from the Fundamental Attribution Error, people initiating change might ascribe any resistance to a person’s character.  The person might be obstinate and close-minded.  Not so, say the Heath brothers:  “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity” (p. 14).   People are skeptical of change they don’t understand.  The agents of change, therefore, have an obligation to break down the change into its component stages, and to clarify the expectations.

3.    Forget Punishment
If we want people’s behavior to change, for any reason, we must encourage rather than punish.  This would seem self-evident.  Apparently not.  The authors of Switch cite the work of writer Amy Sutherland, who studied the approach of animal trainers.  How might they “teach dolphins to jump through hooops and monkeys to ride skateboards [?]  . . . The answer doesn’t involve punishment.” (p. 250 – 251).  The answer lies rather in very small steps and, in the case of the monkeys,  bushels of mango.  In the same way, harshness and the threat of failure will not motivate students to improve. 
I can only give myself in example.  I continue to do what brings me success and satisfaction.  I reject those activities in which I believe I lack ability.  I have played golf only a few times because I am convinced that my poor play frustrates any foursome I might be a part of, even in a Texas Scramble.  I don’t play pool or video games, either, because  I am no match for the competition.  The experiences are not positive.  On the other hand, I love Scrabble because I can hold my own.  I became a better pianist when my hard work  brought me encouragement from my teacher, an exam mark I had thought unattainable for someone with my ability, and positive comments from professional musicians I respect.  Why would my students not react the same way?  They would want to continue to do what they feel successful at, be it playing video games, skateboarding, hockey, writing, or mathematics.  My job would be to structure that success in the classes I teach.

Switch, then, is a timely and absorbing read that explains key principles of change using a variety of examples in diverse contexts.  I am so grateful to my friend and colleague for her thoughtfulness.

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