FINDING THE UNICORN: organizational change, persuasion and belief
by Lesley Crane

guestPosted by

One could be forgiven for thinking that managing change in an organization is a simple matter of persuasion. After all, we spend a great deal of time trying to get people to do or think things we want them to. The goal, conscious or not, is to induce a shift in the belief system of the recipient. Persuasion, then, is a form of making demands which, as Peter Drucker notes in his essay on Functioning Communications, is one of the fundamentals of communication. Fundamental it may be, simple it is not.


The implicit understanding here is that when we perform an everyday act of persuasion (e.g., I know more than you, so I must be right), we display a tacit knowing of what others believe  so that we can (a) determine that a shift in belief is warranted in the first place, (b) set the shift’s direction, and (c) apply the most efficient rhetorical strategy.


Humans are actually pretty good at using our linguistic ‘persuasion toolboxes’ to persuade and change the beliefs of others at the mundane level  (you could compile a substantial phrase book of such rhetorical devices). If we were not, nothing would get done and we would probably still be hunting-gathering. The efficacy of such actions is shown to be wholly reliant on speakers’ shared experiences and /or knowledge of context. This is precisely where organizational change management seems to get it wrong.


An organization wants to transform its culture to a more open, sharing and collaborative one. To do this, as one leading UK consultancy recommends, management needs to understand what people will have to believe, which is billed as ‘one of the secrets to successful change’. But does this  not effectively side-line the prevailing beliefs?  Logically, this kind of communication only deals with half of the equation in its formula of predicting people’s future beliefs, as it ignores their starting position. This is perhaps symptomatic of what Lee Bryant describes as ‘traditional change management’ with its top down, ‘big bang’ ethos  which, he claims, is prone to failure or, at best, unsustainable impact: the elusive unicorn that Peter Drucker talks about.


To attempt change in an organization is the attempt to persuade in order to manipulate belief. Recall Peter’s Drucker’s definition of ‘communication’ as being the action of the listener, not the speaker. The speaker merely utters: the utterance only becomes communication when it is understood. In my terms, the speaker broadcasts a persuasion action (which crucially orients to what the listener knows, thinks and so on); the listener accepts and applies it, in which case a communication is shown to have taken place as a collaborative action accomplished in social interaction. It works because speakers share common knowledge of experience and context, largely at the tacit level. Much of organizational change management practice simply fails to factor these fundamental human behaviours into the plan. Rather, it subscribes to the communication fallacy in differentiating between the communicator (the speaker) and the listener (the recipient). It treats humans as robots to be programmed.


Beliefs, according to Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline, are often invisible, taken for granted, but influence action –how people accomplish things, set goals, figure out what is to be done and so forth (see Crane on tacit knowing,). Senge’s ideas find resonance in the earlier influential Theory of Planned Behaviour in which Icek Ajzen links beliefs with attitudes with beliefs as the antecedents to attitudes and behaviour. Further, Ajzen notes that we can only attend to a small number of salient beliefs at any given time because of memory limitations. This could explain how the ‘unexpected utterance’ is not heard (Drucker), or how participants failed to notice a man dressed in a gorilla suit wandering through a basketball game.


Despite a battery of conflicting claims and theories, some common features of beliefs can be drawn:

  • They are often unconsciously acquired and stored;
  • They are often unconsciously used and invariably influence what we do;
  • Similarly to tacit knowing, we are not always able to articulate all that we believe with any degree of complete honesty.

From my own research, add another criterion:

  • Beliefs are not static, enduring mental phenomena: they are fluid to, interdependent with, and influenced by context.

If you accept these propositions, then returning to the earlier argument – that successful persuasion requires knowledge and understanding of both the prevailing and future predicted beliefs – then we seem to have a complication. If people mostly don’t know what beliefs they possess, how can we possibly know what people believe in? Usually the simple answer is to just ask them, using a self-report questionnaire survey for example. That may only tell us what people think they believe in that instant, and most likely what they think we want to hear. There is an alternative approach.


If that which people believe influences what they do, then it influences what they say. Consider language as action with function and consequence in social interaction. As the British philosopher John Austin taught, when people speak, they do things with their words. To work up persuasion action in talk, for instance, is to display a particular belief, the strength of which can be measured by the rhetorical lengths taken to press the case, and its effect on listeners. So, rather than ask people what they believe, observe how and what beliefs are conjured in their everyday talk.


To conclude these points, if an organization wants to bring some kind of change into effect in a sustainable way, they need to ask more than what it is that people will need to believe in. They need to ask, what are the prevailing beliefs?  To do that they need to look to what actions people accomplish in their talk, what social realities are brought into being, what shared experiences are made live and contingent, and desist from de-humanising people. That would be finding the unicorn.



Ajzen, I. (1991) The Theory of Planned Behaviour.  Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 50, pp 179 – 211

Austin, J. (1962) How to do things with words, (Eds) Urmson, J and Sbisa, M. 2nd Edn. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Drucker, P. (2001). Functioning communications. In The Essential Drucker. London: Routledge

Senge, P. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. London: Random House

Simons, D. and Chabris, C. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception, 28: 1059 – 1074


About the author:

Dr. Lesley Crane specializes in effective human communications in organizational knowledge, learning and leadership, as both a consultant-coach, and researcher. Her forthcoming book, Knowledge and Discourse Matters, published by J Wiley & Sons, elaborates on the themes and ideas touched on here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *