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Charles S. Jacobs

Changing the Mind of the Mule

Why don't two-by-fours work as a management tool?

A farmer was enormously proud of his mule and constantly bragged to his neighbors how obedient it was. "All you have do is ask politely, and it will do whatever you want."

Having heard this before, one of his neighbors was having nothing of it this time. "All mules are stubborn," he said, " and I don't believe yours is any different."

"But my mule is different," said the farmer. "It's well-behaved, and all you have to do is ask nicely and it will do whatever you want."

"I still don't believe you," the neighbor retorted. "Show me."

So the farmer took him out to the barn, and there in a stall at the back was the mule. Just as they walked up to it, the farmer leaned down, picked up a two-by-four, and smacked the mule over the head.

Stunned, his neighbor asked, "What are you doing? I thought you said your mule was obedient and would do whatever you asked?"

"Ah, yes," the farmer answered, "but you've got to get its attention first.

The two-by-four gets the mule's attention, and ours as well, because it's so unexpected. The brain just continues its humdrum, automatic processing unless something unexpected happens. When it does, the substantia nigra/ventral tegemental area is activated, causing the release of dopamine and motivating us to explore the "new."

Executives struggling to transform their companies in the face of a brutal economic environment should leverage this novelty network. Their corporate change programs are all too often perceived as the initiative du jour, and just another in a long line of soon to fail attempts at change. So employees have learned to ignore them. Leaders need first to get their attention and the unexpected is the way to do it.

Even rats moderately addicted to cocaine prefer exploring something new in their environment to seeking out another dose of the drug. Perhaps novelty will do the same to corporate employees addicted to the same dull round of their work routine.

Unfortunately, too many executives opt for the same approach as the farmer. Their two-by-four is sending a tough message or creating a burning platform, but that elicits fear. The amygdala is activated and the stress hormone cortisol is released. Thinking slows down, vision is narrowed, and attention is riveted on the immediate threat. Just when we need people to be smart, they become stupid.

A better approach would be to reframe the threat as an opportunity, and present the current crisis not as something to dread, but as a chance to rethink the business and make it more of the kind of company everybody wants. Bring people together, present an honest appraisal of the business, and have everyone participate in coming up with ways to improve its performance. For most companies, that would be highly unexpected.

Two-by-fours may work with mules, but humans do better when they're actively engaged in pursuing a hopeful vision of the future.


About the Author

Charles S. Jacobs is the author of Management Rewired.