Motivational Interviewing for Leadership

We are ambivalent about change. We both want it and resist it.

Leaders have to deal with this reality on a daily basis. And traditionally, the way they go about change is via imposition: if things do not change (the way they say), negative consequences will follow.

The harsh reality is that if you impose change, the moment the threat ceases to exist is the moment when behavior goes back to what it was.

[…] ideas provided by others or an exterior source led to increased activity in some areas of the brain but not in those areas that encourage action. In contrast, when the ideas came from within the individual considering change or were self- generated, the part of the brain that influences change became more active.

Wilcox, Kersh, and Jenkins citing Ewing et al., 2014

Change works, instead, when it starts within the people who are asked to change. Leaders have a responsibility to leverage that part that wants change and minimize that part that resists it.

That’s what motivational interviewing is about.

Motivational interviewing has four key principles:

  1. Partnership – recognizing that each member of the team brings expertise and specific valuable elements to the table.
  2. Acceptance – acknowledging that everyone is perfectly capable of finding solutions that make perfect sense to them.
  3. Compassion – putting other people’s interests in front of ours.
  4. Evocation – understanding that whatever solution others find will make them feel a lot better than an imposed solution ever could.

Leaders who can use motivational interviewing effectively have the capacity to elicit change talk rather than sustain talk.

They ask open-ended questions.

Where are you with the project? instead of Have you finished the project?

What do you think about the training? instead of Do you have thoughts about the training?

What do you make of this information? instead of Are you finding this information useful?

They use affirmation to acknowledge the other person’s strengths, values, intentions, success.

They do not say You did not complete the project.

They do not say I like that you completed a part of the project.

They say You gave it your all!

They use both simple (repetition) and complex (interpretation of feelings and underlying meaning) reflection.

When they hear We just need more staff. All of our problems revolve around that one issue. Staffing!

They might play it back saying You feel it’s such a simple issue, and you’re frustrated that we haven’t done more to address it.

They use summaries to show they are truly listening and to guide the conversation further.

Very similarly to coaching, motivational interviewing is a dance between engaging (establishing a connection), focusing (determining the direction for the conversation), eliciting (change talk), and planning (what to do next).

While you and those you lead are seeking a shared mission, or the “WHAT” in your goals, your role as their leader is to assist them in finding their own “WHY” for following through with behaviors that support those goals. By understanding their agendas or reasons for engaging in a particular behavior, their “WHY,” you can work collaboratively to develop a “HOW” or plan for following through with the identified goals.

Wilcox, Kersh, and Jenkins

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