Lessons learned – reinforcing change

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I attended numerous presentations last week which identified how critical senior leader commitment to change really is. This isn’t a surprise to any of us, but I thought it would be useful to define some practical activities to generate the reinforcement of change by senior leaders.

To ensure the change you make becomes the new norm, and to prevent rollback to old ways of working requires a concerted effort on the part of all those responsible for the change. This effort falls into two categories:

  1. Structural reinforcement
  2. Emotional reinforcement

Structural reinforcement

Structural reinforcement is a key element of the cultural models of Carolyn Taylor and Von Trompenaars and Hampden Turner who state that change must be incorporated into the systems used to run your organisation. As you change ways of working update processes, standards, policies, job descriptions and performance metrics to reflect how work is now done. This ensures that when you are audited, what you do and how you do it is reflected in your procedures. It also ensures that when new staff are on-boarded induction materials and training materials are up to date.

Emotional reinforcement

Emotional reinforcement involves appealing to the heart, making people feel they want to work in the new way. There are 3 complementary activities that generate emotional reinforcement:

What you say

What you say can be further defined:

  • What you say
  • Who you say it to
  • How you say it
  • When you say it
  • How often you say it

What you say

This can be factual or dramatic, using stories. Both are important as some people seek out evidence that what they are doing is correct and other prefer to hear examples of how the new ways can make a positive difference.

It is worth noting that neuroscience shows that when we are told stories stories we are more engaged because we use more parts of our brain than when we are listening to facts, and we retain more information for longer (read this article for a summary of these points

What you say must be positive. Research carried out by Implementation Management Associates Inc found that positive reinforcement through recognition and rewards is 3 times as important to sustaining change than statements expressing the vision.

Who you say it to

It is easy to create offence by leaving people out when talking about change. If you only address those that are most affected by the new ways of working you will help to achieve change. But…what about all those who experience a knock-on effect as a result of these core changes? None of us like to be left out because it makes us feel unimportant and our contribution disrespected. You need to find a way to engage with everyone affected by change, however much they are on the periphery. This starts with very thorough stakeholder analysis and a willingness to keep searching out new stakeholders as your change evolves.

How you say it

Albert Mehrabian famously define his model in 1972 of how humans take in information:

When you say it

What you say has to connect with what people do. So a basic rule is to make sure your positive acknowledgement of someone working in the new way happens “in the moment” rather than waiting until a meeting long after what you observed.

How often you say it

We are talking about reinforcing the change so frequent and regular acknowledgements of progress made is more effective than a one off big speech about how well everyone has done.

What you do

Role modelling the new behaviours is key because it demonstrates two things:

  1. It provides evidence that this is the way things are to be done now.
  2. It provides examples that the new ways of working are possible.

As senior leaders do not do the same work as their staff, they cannot role model the exact same behaviours. However, role modelling isn’t mirroring the behaviour. It is wider and involves how the leader takes decisions, what information they seek, their use of new systems even if this is interrogating the data rather than data entry, how they allocate resources and how they prioritise tasks.

How you acknowledge the behaviours of others.

Your acknowledgement needs to be celebratory. Even though people have started working in the new ways, they are still filled with doubt. Celebrating their achievements makes it clear that they are heading in the right direction and helps to overcome this doubt.


Reinforcement requires effort and as each of the factors described above are inter-related, it is worth planning activities that will achieve the encouragement of those impacted by the change to keep going until the change has become the new norm. These activities can be captured in a Communications Plan or a Change Plan, but as many of them are specific to the leader who is providing the encouragement, it can be more effective to have one to one conversation to help the leader decide how they will behave during the change, and how this will help to reinforce the change.