Imagine you need to roll out a change in your department – one you know will be unpopular. For example, you currently have a flexible telecommuting policy, but you’ve decided you want your employees in the office every day. Or, you’re restructuring the department’s work schedule, and the first shift, which used to start at 9:00 a.m., now starts at 8:00. Or the company is spending too much on travel, and people will have to start staying at less expensive hotels.

How do you sell a change that people aren’t going to like?

Research from Harvard Business School suggests that the best way is to announce the change quickly – but delay its implementation.

Change that happens later is less threatening

Behavioral psychologists call this phenomenon “future lock-in.” People are much more willing to accept a change that affects them negatively if it happens in the future.

In one experiment, the researchers asked subjects if they’d be in favor of higher gas prices to improve the environment. When told that the price hike would happen immediately, only 26 percent supported the measure. However, when told that the hike wouldn’t take effect for a few years, buy-in increased to 41 percent.

In another study, an economist at the Stockholm School of Economics explored “future lock-in” in the real world, with real money. She asked over 1,000 people who were making monthly charitable donations if they would increase their monthly giving. Half were asked to increase their donation immediately; the other half were told that the change wouldn’t take effect for a month. The ones who were granted a one-month delay were more likely to increase their monthly donations. And on average they gave 32% more money.

The future looks more positive (no, really)

So why does delaying change increase people’s acceptance of it? Is it as simple as them hoping that the change won’t actually happen? The research says otherwise.

Psychologists say the change becomes more acceptable because people evaluate near-future and distant-future events differently. When it comes to change, people who are thinking near-future tend to focus on the costs – such as the disruption and losses. For example: If I go on a diet, I won’t be able to eat my favorite foods.

On the other hand, when people are thinking about distant-future events, they’re more likely to focus on the benefits of change, such as: If I want to look and feel better at my high school reunion, this diet will help.

So, for example, you stop allowing your employees to telecommute effective immediately, they will likely focus on the downsides: the hassle of adapting to a new routine, the daily commute, the loss of flexibility. But if you announce the change and delay the start date for a few months, they’ll be more likely to focus on positives — for example, more interaction with peers, faster decision making and more opportunities to get promoted. Similarly, if you put off the shift changes, you’ll have more luck explaining how the changes will benefit customers. If you delay the new travel rules, people will be more willing to see how the changes benefit the bottom line, and therefore their job security and raises.

There will be times, of course, when delaying change would be too detrimental and you must act quickly – for example, if you need to make an immediate staffing change. But, whenever possible, you’re more likely to get the buy-in you want if you can introduce the change but postpone its implementation.

Sources:

Rogers, T. and Bazerman, M. H. (2008). Future lock-in: Future implementation increases selection of ‘should’ choices. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 106, 1-20. Breman, A. (2011). Give more tomorrow: Two field experiments on altruism and intertemporal choice. Journal of Public Economics, 95(11-12), 1349-1357.

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