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How to Drive Positive Change - An Interview with John Marshall Roberts

For this month’s Issue in Focus, Communicating Sustainability, applied behavioral scientist John Marshall Roberts shares with us his path to discovering how strategic communications can be used as an effective tool by business to drive behavior change in different stakeholder groups and his unique 3 step framework for managing the process.

John, your work is based on the idea that strategic communications are an important and underused tool for driving business and social change. Have you gotten much resistance or pushback on this idea from the mainstream corporate world?

Initially, yes—I got many glassy-eyed stares!  But I’m glad to say the landscape has changed.  Back in 2007, when I wrote “Igniting Inspiration” I was gripped with this vision, clear as day.  Having been steeped in applied psychology research for decades, and having become aware of the urgent need for massive global business and social change, I had reached a personal breaking point. Things seemed so utterly hopeless and well ‘big’.  A sense of doom about the fate of mankind overcame me and I simply gave up.

Free Webinar - March 28
Join us on March 28th for a free webinar where John will share how he has helped some of the world’s largest and most forward thinking companies dive down to core of their behavior change challenges and unearth fresh new strategies for achieving business, social and environmental goals.

In that moment a funny thing happened.  It all came together…a vision.  I saw very clearly that the biggest barriers toward growth for the sustainability movement were not economic or social, but rather they were deeply psychological.  It suddenly it became clear to me that all of the apathy, cynicism and frustration that aspiring change leaders were facing could be explained by this simple, developmental ‘worldview thinking’ model. I saw that understanding worldviews would be the key to help change leaders reach breakthrough levels of personal and professional effectiveness. I felt like the luckiest person on earth to finally see this vision!

So I set out and wrote a book to spread the good news. I suppose I foolishly expected everyone to immediately jump for joy, like at the end of some campy 1980’s movie where the underdog finally gets the girl and a room full of strangers starts applauding at his heroism….and thus began what became a long arduous path of realizing just what an odd person I am! What I didn’t yet realize back in 2007 was that the concept of “communication as a tool for change” was still a very radical and abstract idea to many. It was all so clear and self-evident to me at the time, but the corporate world didn’t yet know what do with a guy like me.

And what has changed since then?

Everything.  The business world has changed, the political world has changed, digital media has changed…and perhaps most importantly, I’ve changed. I’ve finally learned how to ‘eat my own dog food’ as they say.  And I strongly believe that what has worked for me can work for anyone reading this who hopes to change the status quo.

The key to my turning this vision into a successful career has been the same thing I preach in my keynotes and workshops: empathy…empathy for the challenges and worldview of today’s top business leaders.  Let’s face it: Even when they have a deep visionary streak, decision makers are inherently data driven and risk averse. The structures and systems of the capitalism status quo almost force them to be that way

Brazen ideas about ‘worldview insights’ and ‘communication strategies for driving change’ are inspiring, but at the end of the day corporations need proof. Otherwise the perceived risk is just too high…especially in the topsy-turvy economic climate since the financial collapse of 2008.  I eventually realized that I somehow needed to flip the risk profile for decision -makers. I needed to help them see that the true risk for their business was not in their hiring me to apply these new ideas, but rather in their being left behind--in their not having the insights required to win the hearts and minds of their critical stakeholder groups.

So what you found is that business leaders were operating from a “risk of action” perspective due to economic and social norms, whereas you were presenting a “risk of inaction” perspective. Not a small gap to overcome. What did you do to “flip the risk profile” as you put it?

I developed the “Roberts Worldview Assessment.”  I realized that if I had a scientifically valid psychometric tool for measuring the worldviews of various audiences, mainstream thinkers would lend more credibility to what I was saying. I also realized that this would eventually open up new opportunities for me to generate valuable ‘proof of concept’ stories with major brands.  I knew that it would take time, but the combination of solid scientific data and clear proof of concept stories would be what was required to break through to new, more ‘mainstream’ corporate audiences.

I’m glad to say that this has worked.  Business is great and growing quickly.  I’ll tell you what: being a passionate advocate for “communication strategies for change” is much more fun now that the “glassy-eyed stare” quotient has diminished!

The challenge now for me—and for many of the passionate strategic partners whom I’ve been lucky enough to work with over the years—is  to keep pushing these ideas forward, making them more and more simple and practical for everyday decision makers. I embrace this challenge. I have a new book in the works which boils the entire process of driving positive change down to a 3 step process.  How simple is that?  (My academic friends are really going to give me hell for being so damn simple, but what the heck.)

In developing and testing tools like the Roberts Worldview Assessment, you must have generated some significant insights for people working as change agents within their companies. What one piece of advice would you have for business leaders today who hope to drive behavior change in customers, employees or other stakeholders?

One word:  “Listen”.  Listen to the people and groups that you hope to influence.  Listen beneath their seeming apathy or cynicism, beneath their seeming indifference to your vision.  Listen for the deeper values, beliefs and assumptions that drive their day-to-day attitudes and behaviors.   Listen until you are able to see and know—in your bones—that they deeply want to be a part of your vision (even though they may not know it yet!).

That’s the most difficult challenge – to truly listen. To sit with confusion and impatience and mistrust until you get absolute clarity of insight and understanding about those you seek to influence. 

But here’s the good news: with this sort of insight you will naturally begin to adopt the strategies and actions that will help you drive change with these important groups.  I view this as an absolute law of nature applied to the social realm. Over time, it is simply impossible to NOT be influenced by someone who genuinely appreciates and understands you.

Listening is always the key—it  unleashes the insights that drive change.

Earlier you mentioned that for your new book, you have essentially boiled your process for driving positive change down to just 3 steps. In your webinar on March 28th you’re going to talk about these steps. Can you tell us about this framework and give us a little teaser to the 1st step?

Sure.  This webinar is exciting for me, a coming out party of sorts. I’ll be unveiling a lot of new ideas to make these big ideas immediate and practical for change leaders.  I’ll also be sharing some of the case studies to illustrate how this works in a real world setting.

In the meantime, I would just challenge folks to pay special attention to how they habitually go about trying to drive change through their communication strategies.  Do they focus first on understanding others or on being understood by others?  

I’ve found that 90% of change leaders—be they CEO’s, CMO’s or sustainability execs—are primarily interested in being understood first.  This just seems to be a deeply ingrained habit of thought for most of us!  We all want to be understood…..Unfortunately this approach greatly limits our impact. When we seek to  share our message without  first seeking to understand our audience we inadvertently avoid the hard work of finding that ‘sweet spot’ for change – that hidden place where our own passionate vision intersects with the deeper life aspirations of our target audience.  As a result, our relationships suffer and our message falls upon deaf ears.

As we’ll see, Step 1 of the change process (‘Insight’) involves finding that sweet spot, that transformative insight.  If done properly it makes step 2 (‘Strategy’) and Step 3 (‘Action’) much simpler and infinitely more potent.  Stay tuned!

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