Natural Law as a Change Agent

Talent Management

December 23, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

Barry Diller, the chairman of IAC/ InterActiveCorp, was at Harvard Business School explaining the rationale behind the mosaic of Web-commerce entities he has assembled at his company, including, and One of the students pointed out these various businesses didn’t seem to come together in a coordinated, synergistic way.

Diller erupted in mock anger. He replied, “Don’t ever use that word, “synergy”. It’s a hideous word. The only thing that works is natural law. Given enough time, natural relationships will develop between our businesses.”

I agree. You can’t mandate synergy. You can’t manufacture harmony, whether it’s between two people or two divisions. You can’t order people to change their thinking or behavior.

In my last column, I explained the “natural law” of human behavior. I’ll say it again:

People will do something, including changing their behavior, only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their best interests as defined by their own values.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II and 34th president of the United States, once said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

To get you to do what I want, I have to prove that doing so will benefit you in some way, immediately or somewhere down the road. Every choice, big or small, is a risk-reward decision in which your bottom-line thinking is, “What’s in it for me?”

None of us has to apologize for this. It’s the way of the world, and it isn’t as black and white as selfishness vs. selflessness.

It’s the force that gets squabbling rivals to stop fighting and begin cooperating. If you look deep enough in these situations, you’ll find they’re not doing it out of altruism or newfound saintliness. It’s the only way they can get what they want. You see this all the time in politics.

It’s the force at work when people swallow their pride and admit they were wrong. As hard as it is for many folks to do, they will if it’s the only way to put trouble behind them and move on.

It’s the reason people will turn down better-paying jobs because they sense the new situation will not make them happier. They’re asking what’s in it for them and concluding they’d rather be happier than richer.

I’ve said many times before, successful people have very few reasons to change their behavior and lots of reasons to stick with the status quo — or as they might say in my native Kentucky, to “dance with what brung ‘em.”

Their success has showered them with positive reinforcement, so they feel it’s smart to continue doing what they’ve always done. Their past behavior confirms that their futures are equally bright: “I did it this way before, and look how far it’s gotten me.
Then there’s the protective shell successful people develop over time that whispers to them, “You are right. Everyone else is wrong.” Then there’s the arrogance, the feeling they can do anything, that develops and bulges like a well-exercised muscle in successful people, especially after a string of successes.

These are all heady defense mechanisms to overcome. But most people’s resistance to change can be overcome by natural law. Everyone, even the biggest ego in the room, has a hot button that can be pushed, and that button is self-interest. All we have to do is find it.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to find the button for successful people. The motive behind their self-interest usually boils down to one of four things: money, power, status or popularity. These are the standard payoffs for success. The hot button is different for each person, and it might change over time, but it’s always guided by self-interest.

Take a look at yourself. Why are you at work? What keeps you coming back day after day? Is it any of the big four, or is it something deeper and more subtle that has developed over time? If you know what matters to you, it’s easier to commit to change. If you can’t identify it, you won’t know when it’s being threatened and will probably be either too erratic or languid in response.

In my experience, people only change when what they truly value is threatened. It’s our nature. It’s the law.