The Rider and the Elephant

This week’s post continues the theme of Influencing for Change which I started last week when I discussed how to strengthen your connections. Today I want to share a few insights from an excellent book on the topic, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.

I was gifted this book a few months ago by a fellow coach. I have a pretty large stack of books in my backlog, but her enthusiasm about this one was palpable, so I let it leapfrog several others, and I’m happy that I did. The authors outline an efficient framework you can use to drive change in difficult situations, accompanied by numerous case studies that illustrate the concepts very effectively.

Their model uses the metaphor of a person riding an elephant. The rider represents rational thinking, and the elephant represents emotions. To some extent, the rider can guide the elephant, but they run out of energy to do so at some stage, and the emotional elephant takes over. They offer three key methods to drive change: directing the rider, motivating the elephant, and shaping the path.

Direct The Rider

Three strategies help us “Direct the Rider,” appealing to people’s rational minds. 

  • Look for the bright spots. Find the individuals who are already demonstrating success with the change you want to create, learn why they are successful, and build upon that.
  • Script the critical moves. Be concrete and specific about what actions you want them to take – the more detailed and actionable, the better.
  • Point to the destination. Show them where you are headed with the change and paint a vivid picture of what the result looks like and why that’s important for them.

One great example of Script the critical moves is a campaign launched in two West Virginia communities focused on improving public health. Rather than using high-level messaging about the importance of eating healthy, they got specific. They knew that getting individuals to switch from whole milk to 1% milk would bring them in line with the USDA recommended levels of saturated fat. So, they launched campaigns focused on this specific action. The campaign increased the market share of low-fat milk from 18 percent to 41 percent (it eventually settled at 35 percent).

Motivate The Elephant

Often we focus too much energy trying to direct the rational rider when the barrier to change is emotional. The Heath brothers offer three strategies aimed at motivating the emotional elephant.

  • Find the feeling. If the rational case for change isn’t sufficient, find the feeling that will connect with the individuals and inspire the change. 
  • Shrink the change. Break it down into smaller components and show individuals the progress they have already made.
  • Grow your people. Help your people develop a sense of identity that relates to the change and cultivate a growth mindset, as described by Carol Dweck.

One simple yet powerful example of Shrink the change was a local car wash experiment with loyalty cards. Some customers were given loyalty cards that required eight stamps to get a reward. Others were given cards that required ten but were given a head-start with two stamps on their card. The customer needed eight more car washes to get the reward in each case. After a few months, 19 percent of the first group earned the reward, compared to 34 percent of the second group. Being 20 percent done motivated their elephant.

Shape The Path

The third strategic area for driving change focuses on the environment. Often we commit what Stanford psychologist Lee Ross refers to as the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” We believe the barrier to change is the individual when the real obstacle is their environment. There are three strategies for shaping the path.

  • Tweak the environment. Make a change to the situation that will change behavior.
  • Build habits. Help the rider form a habit, so it takes no effort to demonstrate the change you want to see.
  • Rally the herd. Get a small group displaying the behaviors you desire, and let it become contagious. Putting your own money in a tip jar at the start of the day increases the likelihood of others adding their own tip. If the jar is empty, they’ll think, “No one else is tipping; why should I?”

Switch’s Model and Ontological Coaching 

Ontological Coaching model
Ontological Coaching model

As I read this book, I was struck by the similarities between the Heath brothers’ model for driving organizational change and the models of ontological coaching that my colleagues and I use to support personal change.

Ontology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the study of being and existence. In ontological coaching, we look to understand our current Way of Being and how we are observing our world. When that Way of Being is not serving us, we look to generate ontological shifts (change) that shift our view of the world, creating a new Way of Being that opens new possibilities.

Your Way of Being originates from the coherence of your language (The Rider), your moods and emotions (The Elephant), and your body (The Path). When a coachee comes to me with a challenge they want to work through, we will typically explore their use of language and their story, what moods and emotions they are experiencing, and how they are holding their body. Through ontological coaching, I help the coachee identify strategies to direct their rider, motivate their elephant, and shape the path to create change for themselves.


I’ll admit we barely scratched the surface on the change model in Switch. I hope that this overview has given you enough insights to convince you to read the book if you have difficult change ahead of you. It will not disappoint!

Schedule time with Josh.

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