How do you move an elephant?

Build meaningful connections with recognition.
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Motivate with Recognition

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Building connections with the work and people in an organization inspires team members to achieve the mission. In the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the Heath brothers explain this appeal to the emotional side of individuals is equivalent to motivating an elephant. A rider can tug on the reins of the six-ton creature for only so long before the effort fails, and the elephant needs more than force to keep going. A more effective approach to guiding behavior and building meaningful connections is to recognize individuals for displaying the characteristics and actions that will move the team to success. The elephant responds to positive recognition.


Successful changes share a common pattern. They require the leader of the change to do three things at once: direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path. In this short clip, Dan Heath describes this set of leadership actions in detail.


Consider your role as a leader and how recognizing the right behaviors and actions on your team can result in increased achievement. Review the descriptions below and reflect on ways you can keep the elephant and rider moving on the path.

Direct the Rider.

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Provide crystal-clear direction.

  • In what ways might you need to clarify expectations and direction for a team or individual goal?
  • How can you recognize those providing direction and assistance for others? Are there any individuals that deserve to be recognized for their leadership on the team?

Motivate the Elephant.

What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. The Rider can’t get his way by force for very long. It is critical for leaders to engage the emotional side—get an individual’s Elephant on the path to cooperation by recognizing efforts aligned to team goals.

  • How can you build in systematic recognition of team members?
  • What opportunities exist for peer recognition of success toward team goals?

Shape the Path.

What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. We call the situation and surrounding environment the Path. When you shape the Path, you make change more likely.

  • What barriers might be preventing team progress?
  • How can you remove barriers or reshape the path to support achievement of goals?
  • How might you recognize team members skilled at problem-solving or finding ways to clear the path for others?

Reference: Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New York: Broadway Books. 

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