Introduction: Change and Mental Breaks
The ability to induce change is an essential skill for school leaders. However, change is hard, because the human mind has built-in “mental brakes” that favor the status quo. The proper strategy then, as Jonah Berger explains, is not to "push" for change but to help people overcome their inner barriers. A “push” strategy trying to overcome an organization’s inertia by winning over its members through overwhelming persuasive force (sharing data, laying out arguments, or even appealing to emotions) is unlikely to succeed. Indeed, as explained in The Catalyst, the human mind also has a mechanism to protect itself against change agents: reactance.
Reactance is a tendency that human beings have to resist to perceive threats to their self-determination with proportional reactions in the opposite direction. Thus, a school leader trying to introduce the International Baccalaureate by persuading their faculty of the benefits of this program might only strengthen teachers’ attachment to the current curriculum, simply because people do not usually like to feel like they are told what to think or do.
Instead, Berger argues, this leader should adopt a “pull” strategy, identifying people’s mental brakes and helping release them one by one. This means acting like a catalyst, which lowers the activation energy required to induce change. In the case of reactance, this means creating the conditions for teachers to persuade themselves that a change of curriculum is necessary.
A necessary first step, here, is to act on the mental brake that Berger calls “endowment”. In reality, what he refers to under this name is a number of biases that come from the fact that we give more importance to avoiding losses than to making comparable gains. One way to counteract these biases is to reframe the change in terms of loss avoidance. By insisting on the benefits of the change compared to the status quo, the leader falls into the trap of presenting it as a gain (of the IB), which will not weigh as heavily as the loss of the current curriculum. Instead, they should create a space where teachers are free to brainstorm the latter’s opportunity costs. Generating dissatisfaction with the status quo and a sense of urgency will accelerate change.
Even to avoid losses, there is a limit to the pace at which people can espouse change. Thus, change-makers should break down big leaps into small steps and remain within people’s “zone of acceptance”. More generally, one of the main limitations of a top-down approach to change-making is that it feels disconnected from people’s day-to-day reality at work. Just like it is biased in favor of the present, the human mind tends to favor proximity over distance. For that reason, change-makers should constitute a grassroot coalition, and make the process relevant to people’s practical considerations. Rather than laying out the long-term aspirations and beautiful “vision” that motivate the adoption of the IB, a school leader might thus want to let teachers discuss with close colleagues their most concrete issues, and then use these relays to introduce some aspects of the IB as elements of solution. While an all-faculty presentation on the Learner Profile and ATL skills might not help get much traction, subsidiarity and differentiation could allow to identify, e.g., a number of teachers tired of endless plagiarism who would be receptive to the adoption of Academic Honesty as an explicit school-wide value, and of Research Skills as an area of intentional focus.
One of the reasons why people tend to prefer the present to the future and the close to the distant is because they prefer the known to the unknown: the human mind is biased against uncertainty and naturally risk-avoidant. This constitutes a powerful mental brake, because making a change does involve taking a chance. To loosen its grip, school leaders can create opportunities for teachers to experiment with the proposed change, on a small scale, themselves. To create the necessary psychological safety, they should also make it explicit that a period of adaptation is to be expected, and more than normal. They should provide appropriate training, and make it clear that support is available. Thus, a dreaded curriculum change can become an opportunity for collective effervescence if time is given for teaching teams to plan and trial the IB program over the course of a small unit. Such a proof of concept can also help gather crucial information before scaling the initiative.
Just like it tends to be biased against change, the human mind tends to favor repetition. The Mere Exposure Effect precisely makes it so that ideas appear more convincing the more familiar they become. An easy but effective way to help people change their mind is thus to expose them to new ideas regularly, from different angles and through multiple channels. Creating a coalition is very useful here again, as teachers are more likely to espouse a transition to the IB if they are subtly drawn in by many different people than if they feel pressured by a single authority figure.
Conclusion: Creating the Conditions for Change
Taken together, Berger’s recommendations form a convenient acronym: R.E.D.U.C.E. As hard as they can be to convince, people don’t usually say no to change, but rather to perceived barriers to change. The role of the leader is thus to identify and lower these barriers. Doing so, they act as a catalyst, creating the necessary conditions for change to happen.
Berger, J. (2020). The catalyst: How to change anyone's mind. Simon & Schuster.