‘You can bring the horses to the water but you can’t make them drink’

was the take away of a college of the Italian professor Giorgio Inzerilli during my MBA study. The gist of the matter is that you can tell people what to do and even push them to do it, but real change will only take place if someone himself takes the decision to want to do it. Lasting change comes from within.

How do you get employees to do what you want them to do?

A real lesson for me was the project by KPN International in the Czech Republic in the nineties. At the time an American manufacturer was invited to give a presentation about new hardware that they were trying to sell to the Czechs. The hall was full of Czech managers who listened to the American’s enthusiastic story for an hour. Afterwards I asked the American how it went and he was quite excited about the “great” presentation and expected to be able to do business with the Czechs. The answer of a number of Czechs was merely, ‘I am happy we can finally go back to work’. The American hardware was never sold, as far as I know.


A well-known way to achieve change is to simply tell an employee which task to carry out. Employees are supposed to just do what you tell them to, aren’t they?

Giving orders however only works in the short-term. The basic conditions for lasting change are clear goals and objectives, transparent Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) which are comprehensible throughout the organisation. Within this changeable organisation, in addition there is a joint image of the future that the company will create for itself. A decision is well founded here by facts and future visions and as such becomes comprehensible for the employees. If you have no vision, goals and hard facts at hand, then giving orders does not work and particularly in The Netherlands you will be regarded as an authoritarian manager. You will hear yourself repeating daily what people are supposed to do. “Don’t they understand yet?” No, indeed people do not understand the ‘Why’, because it can in fact not be explained, and therefore there is no substantive support.


if-you-fear-change-bewDeferred pain

Voice and own initiative are key values in The Netherlands. With the aim of laying responsibility deeper within the organisation, the engagement of the staff when making decisions, is of great importance.

People only feel resistant to the pain of change and not to the change itself. They want something better, but are reluctant to go through pain to achieve gain.

Then how does one develop an insight and become enthusiastic about change? If an employee experiences irritations, problems and inconvenience, related to his/her work, then this experienced pain emerges. A change which provides a solution for this pain, could create the support of this employee. The pain should therefore be explicitly made visible and the employee should be made aware that it bothers him/her so much that a change would be more than welcome. As a manager you can facilitate this process by making contact, showing interest and create understanding for what the new world looks like. This is the time to make the advantages of the new situation explicit. The employee is eager to see his pain solved and will embrace the change. Change is scary, so take your people by the hand, involve them and take their complaints seriously.


Will all the horses drink?

Before you start any changes, always check well to what extent you have created support within the organisation:

  • Is there any deferred pain with the employees and is it explicitly visible and tangible?
  • Are there any objective facts that substantiate the desired change and therefore legitimise it?
  • Have you made the future clear and is it challenging and (with effort) feasible for the employees?

After completion of the preconditions, you have a greater chance as a manager to make your employees go through the pain of change and have them embrace the new way of working.
You still can’t make them all drink, but they will become a lot more thirsty.
I take great pleasure in helping our customers to achieve this insight. The selective application of several Lean and management tools is part of the solution. The real distinction is making contact with the employees and their intrinsic motivation to want to change. Sourcing this energy and developing it is the challenge. Only when this succeeds, the change will settle with the employees and support will soon no longer be necessary.

Would you like to react to this blog or discuss something, please email to wietze.fabriek@hillfive.nl
Have a great time today!




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