April 11, 2017 Peter Gustafson

Why? A little, three-letter word that holds so much power…


We’re told that it’s important that people understand WHY in order to readily accept and adopt changes. In other words, to get people onboard the ‘change train’, we must explain why. Often, the business reason for change lies in a declining competitiveness, or the threat of the same, so as a leader, you paint an exciting picture of the future that you want to move towards and you assume everyone will be inspired and the change will start to happen – of course, life isn’t really like that.

Professor John P. Kotter speaks of the need to anchor the ‘sense of urgency’ and to ‘get the vision right’.

As a practitioner, I am in complete agreement. Over the years, a large part of our work at Symbal has been about communicating the WHY? According to our customers, in retrospect, when their businesses needed to change, the ‘why’ communication was the main reason the change journey took off in the right direction. So, clearly, to establish ‘why’ in the minds of the many people is one of the cornerstones of change.

Many company managers understand that the purpose and motive is important to be able to convince and show direction. But why is it then, that within so many companies, despite their knowledge and despite all their efforts to make change a reality, employees do not ‘buy’ the management motives and the change never really takes a grip?

I have picked out some reasons to illustrate that it’s actually more than words, that matter.

Of course, the logic is that to begin with, the message must be credible and logical. Ethos and Logos. ‘Do we really have the ability to climb that mountain, as our management says?’ ‘How did they arrive at that conclusion, that it’s necessary to change?’ It’s important to share the clarity around those questions. BUT is this really the most important step at the beginning of a new change journey?

Clearly, what is often neglected is that the message must be filled with passion and fervor. Pathos. Who says what, and in what way is crucial. Not least at the beginning of a journey of change. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen and heard business leaders, talking about their vision and strategic objectives like they were reading from a technical manual or from a recipe book explaining how to cook Tuesday’s fish.

My experience is that Pathos is sometimes more important than the Ethos and Logos of getting people to engage and move, based on a strategic message. It’s when eyes light up and skin reddens with excitement, and the body language becomes excited that people start to feel that the leader believes what she is saying.

If you gather your people in a room to talk about new change initiatives, you can be fully confident that they are looking at you, how you behave when you talk and how you sound – and if you’re conveying warmth or cold. What is written in your PowerPoint is of far less importance.

My opinion is that PowerPoint is great, but mainly as a tool for script writing, not presentation. The performer makes the presentation not the PowerPoint.

I would say that at the start of a journey of change, the leadership’s ability to convey Pathos is many times more significant than that of Ethos and Logos. At the beginning of a journey, people need to feel safe. The leader’s main role is to create that feeling. A leader’s tools to get this message across are her mouth, her body and her own feelings – her whole being. With these tools she shows direction. Emotional presence trumps rational argument.

The larger the magnitude of the change – the greater the need for Pathos in the beginning. And to all of you who like process maps and multidimensional matrixes – there will be plenty of room for both the Ethos and Logos later on in the journey… And it will all be needed.

Things you can do to bring more PATHOS into a meeting:

  • Make sure that you’re mentally onboard yourself, find yourself in the change journey ahead and be clear in your own personal choice – yes, I believe in this! If you truly believe, it will happen!
  • Prepare yourself. Ready-made PowerPoints are good, but try to find your own story and your own way of telling it. A good trick is to use your own examples in life that you can relate to.
  • Practice. Why not make a dry run with your family whilst sitting on the sofa. Better critics, you will not find.

  • Finally, the principle of top sponsorship. Let the CEO talk about the motive and vision. If you’re really creative, package the vision into a visual story on film.

In my experience these tips make a difference. They can provide a lot of energy to pull off the change process and move things from the very beginning, in a truly great direction.

Peter Gustafson

Title: Strategic Advisor
Experience: 25 years working with change management
Personal mission: To take the fear out of change
Weapon of choice: The Symbal Change Model
Change anthem: Aerosmith, Dream on
Peter Gustafson

About the Author

Peter Gustafson Title: Strategic Advisor Experience: 25 years working with change management Personal mission: To take the fear out of change Weapon of choice: The Symbal Change Model Change anthem: Aerosmith, Dream on

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