By Randy Sabourin

Leading change is one of the most difficult tasks faced by every level in an organization. Traditional ‘carrot & stick’ and humanism behaviour motivation is being replaced by a ‘brain based’ neuropsychology approach. Discussion and research continues on why we resist change and the often predictably irrational opposition seen when an organization adopts new strategies or systems. The placebo effect is a powerful phenomenon that may be an additional tool to assist us in realizing our change objectives.

The placebo effect has been a well documented phenomenon in the medical and scientific community for several decades. It can be defined as “the physiological or psychological response to an inert substance or procedure”. For quite some time, it has been observed that administering a remedy with no medical value (a sugar pill) can have positive results because the patient ‘assumes’ they feel the effect of the drug they believe they are taking. Although employed as a “commonplace method or medicine” as early as the 18th century, it was first brought into modern medicine context by an army nurse during the Second World War who lied about administering pain-killers to wounded soldiers. The soldiers would report a significant reduction in pain despite being given saline.  Placebos are an important aspect of the drug approval and research process known as the “blind” study. Over the last decade pharmaceutical companies have been struggling with the increase in the effectiveness of placebos in blind studies during Phase II and Phrase III drug trials. Half of all drugs that fail these late-stage trials drop out of the pipeline due to their inability to beat placebos. Steve Silberman writes in a Wired article:

“The upshot is fewer new medicines available to ailing patients and more financial woes for the beleaguered pharmaceutical industry. Last November, a new type of gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease, championed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, was abruptly withdrawn from Phase II trials after unexpectedly tanking against placebo. A stem-cell startup called Osiris Therapeutics got a drubbing on Wall Street in March, when it suspended trials of its pill for Crohn’s disease, an intestinal ailment, citing an “unusually high” response to placebo. Two days later, Eli Lilly broke off testing of a much-touted new drug for schizophrenia when volunteers showed double the expected level of placebo response.”

The assumption is that the drugs being submitted for approval are effective but cannot outperform the desire or will of the patients to see positive results. Two questions come to mind; first, why is there a change in the body as a result of only stimulating belief? The answer to this question can resided in several places; evolution, the psychology of possibility, increased faith in modern medicine or even ‘The Secret’, at any rate all beyond the scope of this entry. The second and more practical question is how can we benefit from this phenomenon in a leadership and change context?

Marketers routinely create a placebo ‘affect’ by selling association with their brand or product which will result in value. Consider the atmosphere at Starbucks, the Apple cult or the stamp of approval by an Arthur Anderson auditor before ‘Enron’ (that now has the opposite effect). The presentation of a web site, the way one dresses or the style presented are all designed to portray a particular value independent of the products or services provided. The companies or products are no better or worse but acquire value from a marketing placebo.

It would be unusual to meet a monk or a minister who would say, “yes, we burn the incense or turn down the lights or ring these bells or light these candles as a way of creating a room where people are more likely to believe in their prayers,” but of course that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Parallels can be drawn between administering drugs to treat medical conditions and implementing change within an organization. The strength of the placebo effect lays in belief and trust, two critical success factors for strong leadership as well. Applying the dramatic transformation witnessed in ‘placebo-based’ fake operations or cancer cures to an organization cannot be ignored. Especially when we recognize that implementing change is extremely difficult to accomplish. Research tells us that one in nine people will not change their life style choices after major heart bypass surgery, yet most organizations rely on an email from the President to approach major change initiatives. The magic of the placebo effect lies in the fact that you can’t do it to yourself. An accomplice, someone with leadership and trust is required to deliver the story or the pill.

Trust in leadership is very hard to measure, elusive to create and very difficult to regain once lost. While there is no single way to create trust, psychologists agree that the best way to generate it is to demonstrate competence, integrity, respect, and consistency.

Implementing change is one of the core responsibilities of a leader; it is also the toughest game in town. Whether it is shifting the organization towards a new customer base, changing to a sales centric or coaching culture, or the adoption of a new portal, change management strategies need to consider the placebo effect as a secret weapon in motivating change. By leveraging the placebo effect in a change process you can help increase the odds of success.

4 Responses to “Leadership, Change and the Placebo Effect”

  • I wish more people would write blogs like this that are actually fun to read. With all the fluff floating around on the internet, it is refreshing to read a blog like yours instead.

  • Simon G:

    Interesting approach. I think the Placebo effect affects us more than we think.

  • Our Company's Website:

    I was very pleased to locate your website. I wanted to say thanks for your time for this great article. I definitely enjoyed reading it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you create!

  • Visit The Site:

    I enjoyed this post very much. I feel this when people speak down to me when they don’t know I own this business. I don’t give them a second change once they find out. Know I can identify what is going on.

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