Control the Rider, Motivate the Elephant, Shape the Path

5/29/2013 - 4:49 p.m.

It May Be Time To Switch!


In the hit book, Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath discuss how our minds wage war in a split between the rational mind and the emotional mind.  A great example they use is the person using the rational side of the mind wants to have a great beach body, while the emotional mind wants to grab the Oreo cookies.  These two systems create a tension that causes us to resist change.  The rational mind wants to make changes at work, but the emotional enjoys the comfort of the familiar and the existing routine.  The premise of the Heath’s book is that if we can overcome this strain and pressure, then the positive change that is needed will surely come.


There are a ton of great tips and pointers in Switch, and I highly recommend that you read the book.  Until then, here is three of what I consider key points that you can begin implementing today to make lasting changes in your company:


First, in order to help facilitate needed changes, there are three things to remember:

    • - To change someone’s behavior, you have to change that person’s situation
    • - What looks like laziness is often exhaustion
    • - If you want people to change, you have to provide crystal clear direction


Dan and Chip Heath provide real-world examples and not hypothetical or presumptuous theories which is one of the reasons the book is so valuable.  These tips have been tried and tested.   

The Heaths use metaphors to help better understand our actions.  They tag the Rider to represent our rational side; the Elephant to represent our emotional and instinctive side; and the Path which represents the surrounding environment in which change initiatives can take place.  This all comes together when we realize that the challenge is to direct the Rider (rational side), motivate the Elephant (emotional side), and shape the Path to make change more likely.  


The authors say that, “our emotional side is the Elephant and our rational side is its Rider.  Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader, but the Rider's control is precarious because the Rider is so small compared to the Elephant.”  As the Heath’s state, “No matter what's happening with the Rider and Elephant...If you can attack all three at once, dramatic change can happen even if you don't have lots of power or resources behind you.”  


In order to create positive change we must do the following:

Control the Rider

To control the Rider, we must “follow the bright spots,” as the authors say.  “Investigate what’s working and then clone it.”  In other words, instead of starting from scratch, find out what’s working along with points of common ground.  An example in the book was when a doctor, Donald Berwick, CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement was able to save thousands of lives by getting hospitals to sign up for his “how to save lives—massive numbers of lives.”  He had directed his audience’s Riders (or hospital administrators) to get on board.


To control the Rider, we must also “script the critical moves.”  The Heaths give this advice: “Don’t think big picture, think in terms of specific behavior.”  To control the rider, be specific in your direction.  This helps the rational thought process become more in tune to your changes.  Also, we need to point to the destination.  “Change is easier when you know where you’re going and why it’s worth it.”


  • Key Point: Control the Rider in people by not trying to reinvent communication.  Use what has worked in the past and incorporate that using specific direction rather than broad terms, pointing to the end result.


Motivate the Elephant

To motivate the Elephant, we must “find the feeling.”  The Heaths state that knowing something isn’t enough to cause change.  We must make people feel something.  The way we do that is to shrink the change so that it doesn’t spook the Elephant.  Dr. Berwick had motivated his audience's Elephants by making them feel the compelling need for change.  He addressed the feeling side of his audience.  


In addition, we can motivate the Elephant by growing our team members.  “Cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset,” as the Heaths put it.  The authors talk about how to capture people’s pre-existing inclinations.  By expanding the minds of our people, we can help them to escape the dangerous trappings of the Elephant.


  • Key Point: Find the feeling in your team members and uncover what it is they fear in regards to the changes you are trying to make.  Address those emotions head-on by educating your team members as to why the change will not affect them in a negative way.


Shape the Path

Finally, to shape the Path, we are going to “tweak the environment.”  As the authors put it, “When the situation changes, the behavior changes.”  We can help to shape the Path by remembering to build habits.  When the behavior becomes habitual, it doesn’t tax the Rider.  Dr. Berwick was able to shape the Path by making it easier for the hospitals to embrace the change.  He was able to do this because in addition to controlling the Rider, and motivating the Elephant, he “rallied the herd.”  Dr. Berwick knew that behavior is contagious so he simply helped it to spread.  You can do the same.

You can actually shape the Path to change by rallying the troops and getting everyone on board.  It is not as difficult as it sounds.  Once you recognize the Rider in people and address it accordingly and you are aware of the Elephant and do all you can to motivate it, the Path is easier to shape.

  • Key Point: Rally your team to begin shaping the path and instill new habits to adapt to the new changes.  

To make a genuine switch, the Heaths summarize these key points:  “For things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently.  Maybe it's you; maybe it's your team.  Picture the person or people.  Each has an emotional Elephant side and a rational Rider side.  You've got to reach both, and you've also got to clear the way for them to succeed.”  That would facilitate a true Switch!


Johnny Duncan, President of Duncan Consulting, Inc., is a business writer and consultant partnering with business owners to provide workforce management solutions including customer service training, job analysis, people-to-job matches, and conflict resolution.  He can be reached at or by calling 407-739-0718.

   Blog , Book Review