An influence model for organizational change: insights from psychology and organizational development

April 24, 2016

Priests and bishops are our most visible leaders in the church.  They tend to be appreciated and admired by their parishioners.  Most of all, parishioners come to hear their wisdom and perspective week after week, and for some a daily basis, in their homilies.  Priests and bishops platform for influence is unparalleled.  Both Jesus and Pope Francis have gone to great lengths to describe the importance of ethical use of this platform, including mercy, inclusiveness, and respect and care for all, as a householder caring for our common home.

Insights from modern organizational psychology and development (summarized in the McKinsey article below) may help us consider the influence of our pastors, in the context of the challenge and call for system change, before us now.   Advice from Pope Francis and the Vatican on selecting priests and seminarians follows.  This part on top is relevant for all Catholics though, especially those thinking about the systemic change Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ call us to bring about.  — Editor

Fostering understanding and conviction

We know from research that human beings strive for congruence between their beliefs and their actions and experience dissonance when these are misaligned. Believing in the “why” behind a change can therefore inspire people to change their behavior. In practice, however, we find that many transformation leaders falsely assume that the “why” is clear to the broader organization and consequently fail to spend enough time communicating the rationale behind change efforts.

Therefore, in times of transformation, we recommend that leaders develop a change story that helps all stakeholders understand where the organization is headed, why it is changing, and why this change is important. Building in a feedback loop to sense how the story is being received is also useful. These change stories not only help get out the message but also, recent research finds, serve as an effective influencing tool.3

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15 years ago, at the time of this original article, digital advances were starting to make employees feel involved in transformations, allowing them to participate in shaping the direction of their companies. In 2006, for example, IBM used its intranet to conduct two 72-hour “jam sessions” to engage employees, clients, and other stakeholders in an online debate about business opportunities. No fewer than 150,000 visitors attended from 104 countries and 67 different companies, and there were 46,000 posts.4  Social and mobile technologies have since created a wide range of new opportunities to build the commitment of employees to change.

Reinforcing with formal mechanisms

Psychologists have long known that behavior often stems from direct association and reinforcement. Back in the 1920s, Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning research showed how the repeated association between two stimuli—the sound of a bell and the delivery of food—eventually led dogs to salivate upon hearing the bell alone. Researchers later extended this work on conditioning to humans, demonstrating how children could learn to fear a rat when it was associated with a loud noise.5Of course, this conditioning isn’t limited to negative associations or to animals. The perfume industry recognizes how the mere scent of someone you love can induce feelings of love and longing.

Reinforcement can also be conscious, shaped by the expected rewards and punishments associated with specific forms of behavior. B. F. Skinner’s work on operant conditioning showed how pairing positive reinforcements such as food with desired behavior could be used, for example, to teach pigeons to play Ping-Pong. This concept, which isn’t hard to grasp, is deeply embedded in organizations. Many people who have had commissions-based sales jobs will understand the point—being paid more for working harder can sometimes be a strong incentive.

Despite the importance of reinforcement, organizations often fail to use it correctly. In a seminal paper “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B,” management scholar Steven Kerr described numerous examples of organizational-reward systems that are misaligned with the desired behavior, which is therefore neglected.6Some of the paper’s examples—such as the way university professors are rewarded for their research publications, while society expects them to be good teachers—are still relevant today. We ourselves have witnessed this phenomenon in a global refining organization facing market pressure. By squeezing maintenance expenditures and rewarding employees who cut them, the company in effect treated that part of the budget as a “super KPI.” Yet at the same time, its stated objective was reliable maintenance.

Even when organizations use money as a reinforcement correctly, they often delude themselves into thinking that it alone will suffice. Research examining the relationship between money and experienced happiness—moods and general well-being—suggests a law of diminishing returns. The relationship may disappear altogether after around $75,000, a much lower ceiling than most executives assume.7

Money isn’t the only motivator, of course. Victor Vroom’s classic research on expectancy theory explained how the tendency to behave in certain ways depends on the expectation that the effort will result in the desired kind of performance, that this performance will be rewarded, and that the reward will be desirable.8When a Middle Eastern telecommunications company recently examined performance drivers, it found that collaboration and purpose were more important than compensation (see “Ahead of the curve: The future of performance management,” forthcoming on McKinsey.com). The company therefore moved from awarding minor individual bonuses for performance to celebrating how specific teams made a real difference in the lives of their customers. This move increased motivation while also saving the organization millions.

How these reinforcements are delivered also matters. It has long been clear that predictability makes them less effective; intermittent reinforcement provides a more powerful hook, as slot-machine operators have learned to their advantage. Further, people react negatively if they feel that reinforcements aren’t distributed fairly. Research on equity theory describes how employees compare their job inputs and outcomes with reference-comparison targets, such as coworkers who have been promoted ahead of them or their own experiences at past jobs.9We therefore recommend that organizations neutralize compensation as a source of anxiety and instead focus on what really drives performance—such as collaboration and purpose, in the case of the Middle Eastern telecom company previously mentioned.

Developing talent and skills

Thankfully, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Human brains are not fixed; neuroscience research shows that they remain plastic well into adulthood. Illustrating this concept, scientific investigation has found that the brains of London taxi drivers, who spend years memorizing thousands of streets and local attractions, showed unique gray-matter volume differences in the hippocampus compared with the brains of other people. Research linked these differences to the taxi drivers’ extraordinary special knowledge.10

Despite an amazing ability to learn new things, human beings all too often lack insight into what they need to know but don’t. Biases, for example, can lead people to overlook their limitations and be overconfident of their abilities. Highlighting this point, studies have found that over 90 percent of US drivers rate themselves above average, nearly 70 percent of professors consider themselves in the top 25 percent for teaching ability, and 84 percent of Frenchmen believe they are above-average lovers.11This self-serving bias can lead to blind spots, making people too confident about some of their abilities and unaware of what they need to learn. In the workplace, the “mum effect”—a proclivity to keep quiet about unpleasant, unfavorable messages—often compounds these self-serving tendencies.12

Even when people overcome such biases and actually want to improve, they can handicap themselves by doubting their ability to change. Classic psychological research by Martin Seligman and his colleagues explained how animals and people can fall into a state of learned helplessness—passive acceptance and resignation that develops as a result of repeated exposure to negative events perceived as unavoidable. The researchers found that dogs exposed to unavoidable shocks gave up trying to escape and, when later given an opportunity to do so, stayed put and accepted the shocks as inevitable.13Like animals, people who believe that developing new skills won’t change a situation are more likely to be passive. You see this all around the economy—from employees who stop offering new ideas after earlier ones have been challenged to unemployed job seekers who give up looking for work after multiple rejections.

Instilling a sense of control and competence can promote an active effort to improve. As expectancy theory holds, people are more motivated to achieve their goals when they believe that greater individual effort will increase performance.14 Fortunately, new technologies now give organizations more creative opportunities than ever to showcase examples of how that can actually happen.

Role modeling

Research tells us that role modeling occurs both unconsciously and consciously. Unconsciously, people often find themselves mimicking the emotions, behavior, speech patterns, expressions, and moods of others without even realizing that they are doing so. They also consciously align their own thinking and behavior with those of other people—to learn, to determine what’s right, and sometimes just to fit in.

While role modeling is commonly associated with high-power leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Bill Gates, it isn’t limited to people in formal positions of authority. Smart organizations seeking to win their employees’ support for major transformation efforts recognize that key opinion leaders may exert more influence than CEOs. Nor is role modeling limited to individuals. Everyone has the power to model roles, and groups of people may exert the most powerful influence of all. Robert Cialdini, a well-respected professor of psychology and marketing, examined the power of “social proof”—a mental shortcut people use to judge what is correct by determining what others think is correct. No wonder TV shows have been using canned laughter for decades; believing that other people find a show funny makes us more likely to find it funny too.

Today’s increasingly connected digital world provides more opportunities than ever to share information about how others think and behave. Ever found yourself swayed by the number of positive reviews on Yelp? Or perceiving a Twitter user with a million followers as more reputable than one with only a dozen? You’re not imagining this. Users can now “buy followers” to help those users or their brands seem popular or even start trending.


The endurance of the influence model shouldn’t be surprising: powerful forces of human nature underlie it. More surprising, perhaps, is how often leaders still embark on large-scale change efforts without seriously focusing on building conviction or reinforcing it through formal mechanisms, the development of skills, and role modeling. While these priorities sound like common sense, it’s easy to miss one or more of them amid the maelstrom of activity that often accompanies significant changes in organizational direction. Leaders should address these building blocks systematically because, as research and experience demonstrate, all four together make a bigger impact.

Who you admit to leadership roles in the Church

By Fr.  Anthony Ruff,  20 April 2016, PrayTell blog online

One of the key elements of the vision of Pope Francis has been the renewal of the priesthood. He continued to reflect on this topic both in a speech and some off the cuff remarks at a conference in Rome to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of two Vatican II documents: “Presbyterorum ordinis” (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests) and “Optatam Totius” (Decree on Priestly Training).

Vatican Insider reports that Pope Francis cautioned those gathered to be very careful in evaluating potential candidates for the priesthood:

The Pope told clergy that they must think twice when a young man “is too confident, rigid and fundamentalist.” Hence, his invitation to them to beware when admitting candidates to the seminary: “There are mentally ill boys who seek strong structures that can protect them,” such as “the police, the army and the clergy.”

Not all “good boys” are psychologically healthy. To emphasize the point, he recounted an eye-popping comment he once heard from a psychiatrist who screened candidates for the priesthood.

These boys are fine until they have settled, until they feel completely secure. Then the problems start. Father, have you ever asked yourself why there are policemen who are torturers?

The importance of a wholesome family background and a formation that fosters the maturity of the whole person were also stressed by the Pope. Priestly formation is directed to both personal sanctity and pastoral service.

“A good priest is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history – with its treasures and wounds – and has learned to make peace with it, gaining a profound serenity, characteristic of a disciple of the Lord,” he said. “Human formation is therefore needed for priests, so they may learn not to be dominated by their limits, but rather to put their talents to use.”

Lamenting the fact that bishops are not always accessible to their priests, the Pope challenged bishops to respond to the needs of their priests, communicate with them, and not travel too much. “If you don’t feel like staying in your diocese you should resign,” he said.

By putting the Congregation for Clergy in charge of seminaries, the Pope observed that he is carrying out a reform Benedict XVI wanted to introduce.

Full story at La Stampa/Vatican Insider:

“Be careful of who you admit to the seminary,” because there could be people with mental deficiencies among the candidates to the priesthood. Pope Francis said this in an audience with participants of a Conference sponsored by the Congregation for the Clergy marking the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of the Vatican II decrees “Presbyterorum ordinis” (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests) and “Optatam Totius” (Decree on Priestly Training) (Pontifical Urbaniana University, 19-20).

Speaking off the cuff, Francis told a story about when he taught the novices of the Society of Jesus. A “good” boy didn’t pass the psychiatrist’s test and she said to Bergoglio: “These boys are fine until they have settled, until they feel completely secure. Then the problems start. Father, have you ever asked yourself why there are policemen who are torturers,” the doctor apparently asked Francis. The Pope told clergy that they must think twice when a young man “is too confident, rigid and fundamentalist”. Hence, his invitation to them to beware when admitting candidates to the seminary: “There are mentally ill boys who seek strong structures that can protect them”, such as “the police, the army and the clergy”.

In his speech, the Pope remembered the reform Benedict XVI wanted to introduce. He put the Congregation for the Clergy, now headed by Cardinal Beniamino Stella, in charge of the seminaries so the dicastery “can start dealing with the life and ministry of the presbyteries from the moment candidates enter the seminary, working to ensure vocations are promoted and nurtured and can lead to priests living saintly lives. A priest’s path towards sainthood being in he seminary!”

A priest, the Pope said, “is a man who is born in a particular human context” and there, staring from the family, “he learns his first values, absorbs the people’s spirituality, he gets used to relations. Even priests have a life story “and are not ‘mushrooms’ which sprout up suddenly at the Cathedral on their day of ordination,” said the Holy Father. “It is important for formators and the priests themselves to remember this, and know how to take this personal history into account along the formation path.”

“A good priest is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history – with its treasures and wounds – and has learned to make peace with it, gaining a profound serenity, characteristic of a disciple of the Lord,” he said. “Human formation is therefore needed for priests, so they may learn not to be dominated by their limits, but rather to put their talents to use.” The Pope said a priest is “a man of peace” who surrounds himself with serenity, even during hardships. “It is not normal for a priest to be often sad, nervous, or of a hard character; it is not good, and does no good, neither for the priest nor for his people,” he said.

Knowing and remembering that priests exist for the people, helps the them not to be self-centered but authoritative, not authoritarian, firm but not harsh, joyous but not superficial. Basically, pastors, not officials. The priestly mission is for the people of God and the whole of humanity. A priest, Francis said, “is always surrounded by other people”, he is not a pastoral care professional or an evangelisation professional who come and does what he has to do – he may even do a good job but it is still like a job – and then goes away and lives a separate life. One becomes a priest in order to be among the people. The amount of good priests can do depends above all on their closeness and tender love for people.They are not philanthropists or officials, but fathers and brothers. Closeness, a deep sense of mercy and a loving gaze: this is what we need in order to evangelise, to pass on the beauty of a life lived according to the Gospel and the love of God which becomes concrete also through his ministers.”

Francis reminded bishops that the decree on residence is still in force: “If you don’t feel like staying in your diocese you should resign,” Francis says referring to bishops who travel too much and are not close enough o their flock. “How often do we hear priests complaining.” Addressing the bishops he said: “If someone calls you and you can’t answer at that moment, at least pick up the phone and call them.”