Book Review: Feelings Change

Harvard Business School is not the place to go if you want to hear colleagues praise one another. While outright criticism is rare, it takes no more than five minutes on campus to realize that every professor sincerely believes he or she has no intellectual equal. The only exception most of them will make is for Professor John P. Kotter, one of the country’s most respected experts on leadership and the author, with Dan Cohen of Deloitte Consulting, of The Heart of Change .

So what does Kotter think is the key to leadership? You may be surprised. “Our main finding, put simply, is that the central issue is never strategy, structure, culture or systems. All those elements, and others, are important. But the core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people, and behavior change happens. . .mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.”

People change not so much because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking as because they are shown a truth that influences their emotions, says Kotter, who retired from HBS last year. And the larger the organizational change—mergers and acquisitions, restructuring and the wholesale introduction of new technologies—the truer this is.

Every senior manager who has tried to spearhead a new initiative knows why people are reluctant to change, and Kotter and Cohen spell the reasons out clearly: complacency, usually driven by either arrogance or false pride; inertia, usually inspired by fear; and flat-out defiance, which is a result of who knows what.

You can lay out the factual reasons to change until you are blue in the face, but reasoning really doesn’t do much in the face of this kind of resistance, the authors contend. Since the opposition to change is primarily emotional, so must be your approach.

Proving that they have been around the business book track a few times, the authors lay out an eight-step approach to govern the change process, and you will recognize most—if not all—of the components: Build the team, get the vision right, communicate for buy-in, empower action, create short-term wins, don’t let up, and make change stick. At each step along the way, the authors provide a road map for completing each building block, along with case studies of people who have done it.

As helpful as those eight steps are, their argument can be reduced to three steps:

See. Identify the problem or solution to a problem and then help people visualize it in a way that inspires positive action.

Feel. A dramatic vivid visualization helps reduce the negative emotions that can block change.

Change. The visualized image, and the energy that builds up around it, changes behavior.

Despite all the talk over the past decade about empowerment and inspirational leadership, even “servant leadership,” most senior managers have been reluctant to change their approach to managing. If this describes you, and you haven’t been as effective as you would like to be, taking these arguments seriously makes sense.

Paul B. Brown is the author of 13 business books, including the international bestseller Customers for Life. Doubleday will publish a revised and updated version of the book, which was written with Carl Sewell, next month. Please send comments on this story to

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