The Work Game that Motivates: The Holy Grail of Change Management

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Change Reaction

Change management is a complex topic. To address it properly, consider the typical personal reaction to the word "change": Typically there are a few "love it" responses, but "fear," "concern," and "apprehension" are far more common. While some adventurous people may enjoy the challenge of new situations, the typical response is negative. Life's message for most people is that change is fraught with peril, and that stability is preferred, and equals security and safety.

Yet the reality is that change occurs every day, mostly out of personal control. The challenge is to manage change at an ever-increasing pace. In the business world, the lack of "change management" has been blamed as the primary cause of enterprise project failure for the past two decades. Businesses face a significant challenge as the pace and scope of change in the corporate world accelerates.

But wait—can change really be "managed"? It is more appropriate (and realistic) to recognize that the reaction to change, not the change itself, is what can be managed. Therefore, "change reaction management" is a more appropriate label than "change management." Change reaction management is defined as "the strategy and activities for managing the human reaction to proposed change."

Done well, the potentially negative fallout resulting from change—people's negative reactions and resistance to change—would be avoided, and the energy of the organization could be focused on implementing, not reacting to or resisting, the change. A logical focus, but given human nature and the history of change management to this point, it is unlikely.

However, it is possible to increase buy-in and create an internal motivator for accepting, adapting to, and even promoting the proposed change.

In fact, it's not only possible, but obvious, if the five principles of change are understood, and the five principles of recreational motivation applied.

Five Principles of Change

  1. Change is inevitable: Dr. George Odiorne, the father of management by objectives, said, "that which doesn't change remains the same, and that which remains the same quickly becomes obsolete." Change is necessary.

  2. Change is constant: Have you ever heard someone say, "the only thing that stays the same around here is the fact that they keep changing things"? Change is a force of life. Whether considering the decline of the dinosaurs millions of years ago or the companies that went bankrupt yesterday, life and business is filled with the obvious constancy of change.

  3. Change can be either good or bad: The perception of a proposed change depends to a large extent upon the source of the change, how much is understood about the change, as well as the degree of change that must be personally dealt with.

  4. All people view change egocentrically: Views of change are directly linked to the immediate perception of "what's in it for me?" (WIIFM). This is not selfish: it's simply a normal response to change. Leveraging personal impact, or the perception thereof, is critical.

  5. People can choose how to deal with change: This is a revelation to most, in that the general reaction to change is not that people have a choice. While they may not have a choice about the change, they can certainly choose how to respond to it. "Change agents" can leverage this concept to ensure that the reaction to change, and the ensuing behavior, achieves the targeted goals.

Since change is always egocentric, and the reaction and response to change is a choice, rather than a foregone conclusion, they provide the ingredients for steering people in the direction of change acceptance rather than resistance.

The Key to Resistance

When it comes right down to it, people resist change for one reason: fear. Fear is at the root of all resistance. Fear of loss, pain, or failure. People are afraid of losing in the "game" of life and work. A widespread, sometimes debilitating problem is simply that most workers don't know how to "win."

When people ask "how do I win?" and can't come up with a clear answer, their conclusion is simple. "Must be no way to win." And that's a big problem for the organization, since their next conclusion is also typical: "Why try? Why try when I can't win?"

This is naturally followed by "might as well quit."

If they quit and leave, there's a turnover and retraining problem. If they quit and stay, which most do, the result is simply a generally unmotivated, low-producing workforce that goes through the motions with little direction or commonality of purpose.

If you were to ask people at the end of the work day if they "won" today, most would give you a blank stare. They honestly don't know, since they started the day without any understanding of how to win, and simply went about the "busy-ness" of work. Work is a guessing game to most people, and the messages conveyed by management are inconsistent at best, and conflicting at worst. Managers are no better off than frontline workers, since they don't know how to win either.

The message from this confused and directionless state of affairs is rather obvious. Companies are not getting the job done when it comes to telling their employees, their managers and their executives how to win. Too many people, faced with too many challenges, come to work every day without an answer, a goal, or an objective.

This is everyday life at work: no way to win.

The Motivation of Recreation: A Way To Win

Unless people believe that winning is possible, resistance to change is inevitable. So one of the first questions to answer in advance of a proposed change is, "can people be shown how they will win after making this change?" When the egocentric approach to change is coupled with the natural desire to win and appropriate motivational principles, buy-in and cooperative support for the change can result.

Most people don't know how to win today, since in their current work environments they don't understand the business goals as they relate to their job, and have no idea at the end of the day, week, or month whether they've made a positive contribution or not. They exist in an environment that allows no possibility of improved performance in the here and now, since there's no immediate feedback.

People will gladly exit this situation, but only when they believe that things will be better, and can see that the new situation provides them with an opportunity to win, a chance to make a difference, and an understanding of the rules. If there is a strategy that helps people see themselves as winners after the change, they will drop their resistance and help make the change happen.

Recreational motivation is that strategy.

Effective motivation provides a system of tracking and feedback so that everyone personally knows how to win. An approach that taps into the power and "magic" of the energy that people will exert in recreation can enable everyone from the chief executive officer (CEO) to the front-line team member to evaluate exactly where they are at any point along the way—and more importantly, to strive harder than ever before to improve and "win."

This approach is based on the following five principles of recreational sports.

  1. Frequent feedback: The score should be public, visible, always known, and shown on the board immediately. This allows time for improvement during the "game" and meaningful coaching, rather than withholding feedback until the end (when it's too late to improve and change the outcome).

  2. Clear scorekeeping: Scorekeeping is different for every situation and organization. However, it must be objective, self-administered, peer-audited, and coach-promoted. Everyone must understand the score and what constitutes winning (and losing). Scorekeeping is not measurement—the "right" scoring is crucial.

  3. Clear goals: Scoring the most points, beating your previous time, lifting more weight, or running farther than before. Today's performance must be measurable against past results—yesterday's, last week's, or last month's. The performance goal must be clearly defined, and performance towards (or away) from the goals made explicit and visible.

  4. Rules are consistent: Rules can't change in the middle of the game. Consistency supports certainty, and increases the confidence of the people involved. When coaches (managers) and players (workers) all understand the rules, a higher level of cooperation and teamwork naturally ensues.

  5. Choice: There should be options to leverage personal strengths in an empowered way. Rather than being micromanaged in "how" to do something, there may simply be a "get it done" message, which supports a greater degree of autonomy and personal satisfaction.

When a performance enhancement system is based on these principles, everyone clearly knows when they're winning, and when they're not. People will motivate themselves to take the actions necessary to win. No one enjoys losing, especially when winning is clearly possible.

By creating a future environment where people understand what's expected and have a method of scoring, tracking, and winning, change reaction management becomes easy, and resistance management almost unnecessary. People will gladly help the organization move away from a situation where the rules are unknown and where there is no chance for them to win if a "winnable" environment is possible. If the current process is an environment where winning isn't possible and the rules are unknown, a scorekeeping strategy can show people how they can be successful in the future. People will not only buy into the proposed change, but they'll become part of the proactive change effort.

Motivation: A Critical Component of a Change Strategy

Designing a self-motivating improvement system isn't easy, and there are many factors to consider. What to measure, how to measure, how to report, and how often: all of these need to be taken into account. The coach-player relationship has to be defined, and an agreement made regarding the minimal, standard, and high-performance ranges for each scorekeeping area. Ground rules must be established, as well as a common understanding and agreement to the goals.

When a proposed change can be more quickly implemented without resistance, and in fact, with full support of the people impacted, the effort of a scorekeeping strategy is easily justified. After all, the original purpose and driving force of the change was to improve business performance. A rapid, smooth implementation of a proposed change will decrease the time-to-payback and greatly increase the return on investment (ROI).

The power of recreational games applied to work perhaps this does constitute the holy grail for change management.

About the Authors

Chuck Coonradt is a graduate of Michigan State University (US). He is internationally recognized in the fields of goal setting and profit improvement, as an author, consultant, and speaker. Coonradt's books The Game of Work, Managing the Obvious, The Four Laws of Debt Free Prosperity, and Scorekeeping for Success have been labeled as management "must reads." He is a contributing author to the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series, as well as a founding member and frequent lecturer at the School of Entrepreneurship, Marriott School of Management, Brigham Young University, in Utah (US). Over one million executives, managers, and supervisors on five continents have been exposed to Coonradt's ideas on feedback, scorekeeping, goal setting, coaching, choice, and accountability. He can be reached at, or by phone at (800) 438-6074.

Robert Osborne has worked in the business process and IT industries for over thirty years. He has held vice-president positions in sales and professional services for enterprise software vendors and integrators; provided consultative services for dozens of US and international clients; and trained thousands of professionals in project management, systems development, and business process methodologies and techniques. Osborne is the author of the Business Value System Framework, and is the vice-president of business development for The Game of Work. He can be reached at, or by phone at (800) 438-6074.

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