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  • Writer's pictureMarkus Fendrich


Enabling employees to contribute to change and own it

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Would you like some ice-cream? Ok, but you cannot choose the flavour..

Harvard Professor of Psychology Ellen J. Langer defines “illusion of control” as the “expectancy of a personal success probability that is inappropriately higher than the objective probability would warrant”. Two elements that influence this illusion of control are choice and familiarity.

What does this mean and why is it important in the context of business transformations

Langer run studies about the topics of “choice” and “familiarity”.

Choice You feel better with your choice or add more value to the chosen decision or object, if you can decide freely or amongst options, You are more connected to it and you perceive more gained value compared to not having such choice.

You can compare this with a pull approach where you try to stimulate, self-activate and intrinsically engage employees to take own, self-defined action and become ambassadors versus a push approach where employees are presented information, solutions and instructions what to do to activate own thinking, action and finally buy-in.

Familiarity means that if you can connect something familiar with a decision, then you connect better to it, you give it more value and you stand more behind it.

For example, if you can present own ideas, experiences and stories during the design of a business transformation you automatically connect to it and it becomes yours compared to the situation where you are presented a solution where your experiences and ideas where not considered.

Interestingly if you have a situation that allows for choice or familiarity, you also think you do much better then you actually do which is an additional effect that adds to creating a positive future.

In other words, even if facts say you are worse off, people prefer to keep to what they know and can influence. And at the same time they feel much better with this chosen future, even if it is a less good one compared to an alternative with no choice or no familiarity.

This seems pretty logical as such but is very little applied during transformation efforts which explains often low success rates.

Langer conducted several studies in real-world settings with highly diverse groups on these points.

Here are two of those studies with amazing outcomes:

Effect of involvement: In one experiment people were asked to buy lottery tickets for 1$. Half of the participants could choose their ticket and the other half were assigned a ticket. Before the lottery took place, they were individually asked to sell their ticket back again.

Those who selected their own ticket requested in mean about 8$ to sell it back compared to the other group that only asked for about 2$.

In the same situation, for the same thing, personal choice gave an over 4 times higher value to it.

Would you swap your used car that you know since years for a newer, improved model with some more options but the same mileage?

Effect of familiarity: In another experiment people were sold again lottery tickets. Half of the group could again choose, the other half got them assigned. In addition, now the tickets where marked either with a letter from A-Z or with a symbol. The chance to win in this lottery was 1:26. Before the lottery started participants were asked if they want to exchange for free their ticket against a ticket in another lottery that offers a higher chance of winning which was 1:21.

There was a 1:5 difference in changing lottery tickets between those who were assigned a ticket with a symbol and those who could chose a ticket with a letter that represents something meaningful to them (familiarity), like the first letter of the name of their child or spouse.

In the same situation, for the same thing, assigning familiarity to something gave an over 5 times higher value to it.

My core take-aways from this

Choice and familiarity have a huge impact on the success of any transformation program. They need to be taken into account during the design phase. It seems logical as most people prefer a more stable and safe future compared to a perceived less safe future but with also more upside or downside potential.

What this means for some elements of typical transformation programs:

- Do not give people the change story. What motivates you or some leaders in your organisation does not necessarily motivate most employees. For sure have a story ready to get the discussion started but enable employees to share their version and listen to it. Like in the lottery example we are much closer to something where we have a choice which means we can influence what happens. Actually 4-5 times higher according to Langer. Who would not want to increase transformation impact like this with no real risk along.

- Activities to impact behavioural change are often defined by HR and/or Leaders. Employees are then exposed to them. However, this approach will reduce impact. Likely by factor 4-5 based on Langers work. Involving people early in the process, giving them an opportunity to speak up, to influence will create choice and familiarity. Give them an opportunity to ask questions, state what they want and need. Get at least some representatives into your core working group and listen to them carefully. Use diverse test groups and sounding boards before you launch. Communicate that you did so.

- A lot of time is spent on getting few senior leaders ready as role models and to give them an expectation of their future behavior that should inspire others. Role modelling can be effective if not over-emphasized. But there are also watch-outs. For example, Leaders might think they are already ahead of the change and not part of the problem. Also, role modelling is not just showing or telling others what to do. Role models should explain in a rather humble and vulnerable way why they change certain things and why they keep others. Then they need to listen a lot to reactions and get a conversation going, creating further ambassadors. It is important that those leaders are clear about their role and are actually ready for it. Otherwise they tap into the part of employees’ thinking and emotions which is associated with what Langer describes as “no-choice” … with known limited impact.

These are just two factors and some of their application that shows how a successful transformation program differentiates from a regular one. One that has people at the center and gives them the power, one that takes their thinking and emotions into account. This is not classical change management, it is the next level of evolution. It is creating pull and not push.

If you want to read more about why classical change management does not work anymore and how I support clients to make business transformations a reality, using our experience in consulting and our digital approach please contact me.

Please reach out if you want to talk further how to do this or have comments or questions. Any comments and further insights are welcome!

Also published on LinkedIn

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