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Updated: Aug 9, 2023


by Esther McVicar

Have you thought about why lean implementation sometimes fails, or why even when they succeed there is always a cohort that doesn’t get on board? Over my career I have had both success and failure in this regard, and often in the implementation review I have assigned a reason to this phenomenon that I describe as becoming misaligned to organisational readiness. However this glib kind of answer always seemed to be not quite right. Yet I couldn’t put my finger on what else it could be.

I began reading to understand more about the psychology of change particularly how people engage with what they see as risk. My hypothesis was that people don’t engage with changes like a lean implementation because they perceive it as a personal risk. Again this seemed somewhat correct, I looked at the impacts of bias on decision making from Kahneman, at Logan’s tribal leadership theory, Kotter’s organisational change, Cialdini’s factors of influence and persuasion, and a myriad more learned scholars, each time feeling like I had nailed the answer.

Then I heard myself speaking to a colleague, something I had said a thousand times, that organisations are people, so one person can make a difference, and I realised that I had been looking at group dynamics, the informal leaders, the key people to influence, and applying the Pareto principle to change. How had I moved so far from the grassroots in my thinking? I still engaged in the Gemba, starting change at the bottom, but internally in formulating strategy for implementation, I’d moved away.

There are many factors that contributed to this shift in gaze, not least of which is a fiduciary duty to work in the best interests of the organisation. This requirement necessitates lifting of the gaze, seeing the organisation as a whole, and acting in the interests of the whole. Sometimes called the balcony view, where leadership watches the dance of the organisation, or higher still a helicopter view. The problem with this of course is that from such a height, individuals are minimised, and are recognised only as larger units of teams, divisions, or even locations.

In recent readings I came across this idea about individual predispositions which I hadn’t read before, this wasn’t about bias exactly but something more nuanced, more subtle, and more individualised; Motivational postures. These postures are a composite of foundational psychological concepts that influence behaviour, for example attitudes, beliefs, norms, expectations and needs. These composites are a useful litmus test that can help practitioner’s understand the context they are working in more fully, especially the impact of the individual.

What is a motivational posture exactly?

Motivational postures are outward displays of approval or deference, describing the signals that individuals are willing to defer to an authority’s rules and processes (Braithwaite, 2012). According to Braithwaite, motivational postures can co-exist with one another, and they are openly shared. They form a complex social signalling system that can be read by others, including the authority.

Figure 1 - Motivational Posture Continuum

At the heart of these postures is the theory of social distancing described by Bogardus which indicates that the distance a person seeks to put between themselves, and another, is a conscious choice. This decision is a protective mechanism. Closer is naturally more open and trusting while further distances are more protective (Bogardus, 1928).

In terms of dealing with an authority, people who choose to distance them self from authority are making a conscious decision to protect themselves. Harris suggests this decision may be connected with a desire to enhance or protect an ethical identity (Harris, 2011). Further, Braithwaite suggests that our socialisation has taught that authority has the power to both help and hinder. ‘In this sense authority always poses a threat to our freedom to do the things we want to do’ (Braithwaite, 2012).

How does this help Lean Practitioners?

Diagnosing these motivational postures may provide lean practitioner’s with the ability to develop more nuanced strategies to address resistance to change through being responsive to the degrees of motivational posture, particularly as they evolve to circumstance.

Further, since motivational postures can co-exist, this premise sets up a cognitive dissonance for the individual which provides an opportunity for a practitioner to influence the individual’s narrative and resolve differences, i.e., it illustrates a willingness to be convinced. (Braithwaite, 2012).

In reflecting on this possibility I read a little more and found case studies that describe these postures in action; tax evasion is a common example cited, here some individuals were illustrated to have a game playing motivational posture; obeying the law but falsifying information. Resistance postures were also visible identified when individuals did not submit a tax return at all. Further, cases from child protective services have illustrated capitulation motivational postures for truancy behaviours, while more serious game playing postures can be evidenced in organised crime.

I am sure we have all come across people who pay lip-service to a regulatory requirement and then just go about their day, drink driving for example, or driving without a seat belt. In fact some individuals enjoy the sense of ‘getting away with it’, the thrill of the illicit. So what can I do differently if I notice a motivational posture? Braithwaite also suggests some counters to each of the postures she identified, which I’ve included below to aid practitioners in formulating their approach for their context.

The Counters to Motivational Postures

The commitment posture is relatively easy to identify and no action is required. These people are committed once they understand the change and the reasons for it. In fact we want more committed people. The key here is to understand why they are committed, is it trust in the organisation, the leadership, or the outcome and how can that driver be utilised elsewhere?

Capitulation is also relatively easy to identify and tolerable to the change program. Here we need to make it easy engage with the change to facilitate good will with the ‘acquiesor’, because at some point there is going to be something they find unpalatable. Here you might consider using the commitment motivator to nudge aquiesors closer to commitment since motivational postures do not occur in a vacuum. Thus if you can nudge the more dormant motivational posture during challenging periods you are more likely to create a window of opportunity for the change to stick.

The next two postures are more difficult. Resistors are difficult for two reasons; you want to flip them to ‘committors’ or at least acquiesors; and because people don’t hide their motivational posture, they will be loud and proud, and they may attract a group of resistors which will be self-reinforcing and difficult to counter. Here, we need to work harder. Resistance is usually a response to how an authority has used its power. At this point it is useful to review and respond to the grievance through procedural reforms, increased transparency, and fairness (Braithwaite, 2012). This needs to be done in a timely fashion or resistance turns into disengagement.

Disengagement communicates rejection of the authority. Individuals believe the authority is blocking opportunity illegitimately, i.e., they question the power the authority holds or if it should even exist. Here responding to the grievance will not help, in fact it is likely to be considered insincere. Disengagement results when the authority has become disconnected from societal norms in a large segment of society. The French revolution is an extreme example. The counter to disengagement involves a critical assessment of what the authority is trying to achieve, its procedures, and moral purpose, then realignment to get a social mandate (Braithwaite, 2012). Bluntly, a change in authority also helps here.

In many ways the easiest of the motivational postures to identify is game-playing, because individuals want you to know they are more clever than you. However, it can also be the hardest if it suits the individual’s game-playing. It is also the hardest to correct because you have to remove the sense of joy the illicit brings. This can really only be corrected through punishment. Game playing individuals are psychologically beyond the reach of influence of the authority (Braithwaite, 2012). This is often a hard decision for companies because these individuals might be ‘brilliant jerks’ or ‘rainmakers’ who are tolerated to benefit the company.

So could this be it, the thing I just couldn’t put my finger on?

Let’s test the theory with a short case study.

A small manufacturing company I knew of was instituting a broad based change to organisational processes. The change was aimed at reducing bureaucracy and increasing efficiency in turning around orders to better serve their customer base.

The change program began with an announcement that the organisation was going to instituting some changes to better meet customer needs and drive business. Some figures were shared and a target set. The new leadership engaged with the staff asking them sincerely to come on the journey with them to a better future.

The change workshops were planned meticulously, each group of people were designed to work together to cover any weaknesses in the formation, to not antagonise, to be open to ideas. This is where it began, the first step on the path of failure, in considering the group dynamics first, the individuals were already lost.

Then the scheduled program workshops and activities were set at a fast pace, a sprint of sorts, with not many of the benefits, to meet the end of financial year deadline. Oh and did I mention the rubber really hit the road during the pandemic? A time when people were challenged in brand new ways?

Now the program was wobbling, the traction gained was slipping, people were disgruntled, and challenging the change in the face of a 1 in 100 year pandemic, people had other priorities. Here, was the third mistake, the grievances were not addressed quickly due to the circumstances of the pandemic. Instead they were left to fester while people were working isolated shifts, or from home.

In the following year, the new executives could not gain traction, despite coming out the other end of the pandemic relatively unscathed. They did however attend to the grievances and slowly piece by piece things got moving again. It was clear though more help was needed, a circuit break of sorts, so they changed tactics and moved toward building capability with staff using external experts in the field, and it did work, the program was back on track.

So what changed, how did they get the train back on the track? By addressing the grievances even as late as they did, they encouraged good will. By changing tactics and making the change about the people, they were able to work with the cognitive dissonance and nudge the dormant motivational posture. The final pieces of the puzzle were increasing transparency of procedures within the program, forming a working group beyond the steering committed to communicate and facilitate momentum, and talking with each individual, responding to their concerns to facilitate the change.

This case study, though common and simple, illustrates that motivational postures can be useful for practitioner’s to turn around what may seem an intractable situation. This company headed by good executives stumbled through this resolution almost on instinct. Imagine what would happen if they were armed with this knowledge? Could it have prevented the issue in the first place?

I write these articles because that second pillar of lean is often the one most misunderstood. I have spent my career trying to better understand it myself, and I think I may well spend my life trying to understand its nuances. It sounds easy to say respect the people, or respect humanity, but I have found that unless we make this a deliberate practice, the many distractions of life detract from this simple, but powerful message.

I challenge you to begin your day considering the individual, not the most senior, or experienced or the most talented, but the person who comes to work every day and executes their role quietly and beautifully. They make the world turn, if the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that those individuals that deserve our respect the most.

Works Cited

Bogardus, E. S., 1928. Immigration and Race Attitudes. Boston: D.C.Heath.

Braithwaite, V., 2012. Defiance and Motivational Postures. In: D. Wieisburd & G. Bruinsma, eds. Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Verlag: Springer.

Harris, N., 2011. Shame, ethical identity and justice interventions: Lessons from research on the psychology of influence. In: S. Karlstedt, I. Loader & H. Strange, eds. Emotions, Crime and Justice. Oxford: Hart Publishing.


Esther McVicar is an organizational systems specialist. Connect with her on LinkedIn for insight about strategic leadership in organizational excellence, change enablement, and organizational development.


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