Elephant and the Rider

We all use our analytical and rational side to understand we need to change, yet the emotional side prevents us because it has more power and control.

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Elephants are one of the most complex animals on the planet. They can weigh over 10,000 pounds, sleep only four hours a day, sometimes on the ground where they snore loudly, and use their trunks to bathe, maintaining high genes each day.

They are highly intelligent, form a close bond with one another, can identify languages, understand human emotions, show incredible empathy, mourn their dead, have tremendous memories, and mimic human voices. They can also be strong-minded and know when and where they want to go. Elephants are known to be gentle and friendly towards humans. However, they can be unpredictable if they feel threatened or provoked.

Because they can be highly emotional, psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a person riding an elephant for behavioral change. Haidt’s analogy states that the rider is analytical and rational, understands the path that lies ahead, and can plan out the course perfectly.

Whereas the elephant is emotional, driven by irrational behavior, and can, at any moment, alter the course. Because of their enormous size and power, Haidt further explains they can take over from the rider and control the direction and the decisions thus impeding change. Chip and Dan Heath also reference the rider and the elephant in their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.”

They explain:

"Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider will lose. He’s completely overmatched."

This analogy explains why change is so hard for all of us.

So how do we change?

The first step is to understand we are dealing with two variables, “the rider” and the “elephant,” the analytical and the emotional. We will never promote consistent, sustainable change if we don't recognize both. From the Heath brothers, they offer these suggestions for change.

1. Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clear and concise direction. It needs to be simple, easy to understand and repeat. Always ask yourself what works—and repeat. Find the bright spots and enhance those. Do what you do well—and keep doing it.

2. Motivate the Elephant. Since we know that side is emotional and needs care, we must fuel this part of our minds with rewards for doing one small thing, which becomes a bigger achievement. Think of yourself as an elephant — reward yourself for doing something different.

3. Shape the Path. Create the conditions for both the rider and the elephant to excel. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. Why do people start jogging? Because they buy new shoes. When the shoes are not new, they give up—so keep changing the environment and find something new each day. Build the excitement through an environment switch.

We will change when we recognize we have two sides that must be nourished each day. As a leader, coach or parent, understand you must direct your message to both sides — you are leading the elephant and the rider, not just one.

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The Daily Coach Network, led by three-time Super Bowl-winning NFL executive Michael Lombardi and Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame Coach George Raveling, is a highly-vetted membership community for executives and leaders who approach their leadership development like athletes.

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