Mind Your Memes
In 1976 Biologist Richard Dawkins likened the proliferation of cultural symbols, ideas, and behaviors to the biological process through which genetic coding is passed across generations. Dawkins called these units of cultural information memes (pronounced similarly to genes). Richard Brodie (author of Virus of the Mind) adds that these memes are “… a thought, belief, or attitude in your mind that can spread to and from other people’s minds.” Memes range from the positive (e.g., Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself) to the negative (e.g., Kill or be killed). This article will focus on the negative end of the continuum, examining five memes that often rear their ugly head during change efforts.
1) That’s not how we do things here. This meme is as old as time and while we’d love to believe that in the post-bureaucratic organizational world it has been relegated to history’s trash heap, unfortunately it is still alive and kicking. Sometimes the ways “things are done more memes
around here” are indeed hardwired into policies, procedures, union contracts, etc. But more times than not, when you see this meme it is being offered by someone who is attempting to derail a change they don’t agree with. Deflecting this meme is generally quite easy. When someone offers it up, ask them to show you where in the company policies, union agreement, etc. that this amorphous/elusive “thing” is found. You’ll be amazed by how fast this meme is dropped when it’s held under the microscope!
2) That will never work. This is a variant of the above and is often offered hand-and-hand with the “that’s not how we do things here” meme. This meme is more challenging to deal with, because it deals with some speculative future state. Whenever we deal with a future state, there is obviously a significant degree of uncertainty. Individuals offering this meme are trying to capitalize on this cloudiness and thereby tap into their co-workers’ risk aversion. Remember, when dealing with this meme, your goal is not to change the mind of the person offering it (which is generally a waste of time and effort), but rather you are trying to win over the critical mass of folks on your team who are yet infected.
How do you inoculate against this meme? In large measure, you mitigate this when you give people as much information as possible. This information might take the form of the concrete actions steps and anticipated contingencies involved in moving in this new direction. It might also involve sharing some external examples of companies/teams that have had success doing a similar thing. A second way to immunize against this meme is to get your team together to collaboratively address the potential negative issues. Then, you use the “foot in the door” technique to assure the team that you are collaboratively exploring this new direction, nothing more. Of course, you have to brace yourself for the possibility that this strategy may result in a team no-go decision. However, what you can guarantee is if the team decides to move forward, you’ll have incredible levels of buy-in. The last approach involves building enthusiasm around a compelling vision of what the future might look like when your team pulls this off. Two conditions must be present to make this work: 1) you need to be a genuinely visionary and persuasive individual and 2) you need to have a pretty significant level of buy-in to begin with so that your efforts are targeted only to the folks sitting on the fence.