How Trump used change theory to defeat Clinton and what leaders can learn

The change equation is a simple but powerful statement that helps leaders positively influence and manage resistance to change. One that Donald J. Trump appears to have used with devastating effect in the lead-up to his victory earlier this month.

Published by Richard Beckhard and Rubin Harris in 1977, the change equation argues that a combination of the dissatisfaction with the current state, a compelling vision for the future, and achieving practical and realistic outcomes together, must be more compelling than any resistance to change. While his protectionist trade policies and hard-line attitudes and policy positions may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s clear that Trump’s election strategy and subsequent defeat of Hilary Clinton relied heavily on this very simple yet effective equation. Here’s how.

Dissatisfaction with the current state

A central tenant of Trump’s election campaign centred around raising the level of dissatisfaction amongst voters – particularly those affected by globalisation. This was articulated by describing the current direction in which the United States was heading as being disastrous. His use of the slogan “Make America Great” was specifically designed to reinforce dissatisfaction amongst those most likely to feel the pinch of declining living standards.

Vision for the future

While his campaign rhetoric was extremely vague on policy issues, Trump appears to have relied on a series of clear and simple messages for actions he would take, and how he intended to remove the pain being felt by his supporters. Trump also bypassed the media to communicate his vision for the future, relying instead on Twitter and highly coordinated social media “grass roots” campaigners to communicate and amplify his vision for the future.

Rightly or not, by keeping his solutions simple and easy to understand, Trump has established an expectation in the minds of his supporters that the solution to America’s challenges can be easily overcome. Time will tell whether this is true.

Practical steps together

Trump was able to describe his call to action that would unite his supporters, which they could work on together. The most emblematic were his commitment to solving social welfare and crime issues by “building a wall” along the American – Mexican border. Similarly, his promise to embark on infrastructure building programs and tear up international trade agreements were seen as delivering “local” answers to a widespread economic downturn in rural and regional areas.

Resistance to change

Behavioural economics studies have consistently shown that humans are inherently psychologically hard wired to resist making choices that we perceive will result in losing something. Change is typically resisted because it is associated with loss.

Trump’s argument was simple. He claimed that change had already occurred and that everyone had lost something important as a result. He claimed that disaster was already upon American communities and that more pain and loss would occur without a return to a glorious past.

By avoiding policy detail and continuously flip flopping on issues, resistance could not form around any “change” he was proposing. Rather than trying to argue the case for why his policies would work, Trump simply changes the subject and remind those who were feeling the impact of the past fifteen years that his mission was to Make America Great Again.

Lessons for Business Leaders

As Donald Trump  commences his presidency, valuable lessons emerge on how change theory can be used to unite or divide. For leaders seeking to lead within this brave new world, there are a few points to consider.

Leadership congruence – the alignment between what leaders know, do and say – has been in short supply in recent years. The consequence for leaders not doing what they say or “walking the talk” erodes leadership confidence. Employees, shareholders and consumers expect their leaders to keep them informed about what is going on, no matter how negative the news.

When transparency or congruence falls short, people will rely on rumours to get their information, which they often perceive as more accurate than other sources.

Business leaders need to adapt. Be more open, passionate, and visible to their teams and stakeholders. Employees and customers are now less trusting of leaders who fail to communicate in a direct, no-nonsense manner. The days of tightly scripted corporate waffle and weasel words are over.