The elephant and the rider

Picture an elephant with a person on top of it – the rider – and a path ahead. Your aim is to make them move through that path. You can instantly guess that trying to persuade the rider alone will not be as effective, considering how strong the elephant is. But more than often that’s what we try to do.

What do I mean by that? Think of the elephant as our emotional drives, often instinctive, and the rider as our rational, analytical side, responsible for our conscious decisions. There is a clear unbalance between these two competing voices and it is this unbalance that makes behaviour change so hard. Whether that is at a personal or at an organisational level.

Jonathan Haidt first introduced the concept in his book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis.’ Later on, Chip and Dan Heath made this concept more popular when they wrote their book ‘Switch,’ where they put it in the context of various change initiatives.

Their underlying message? If the elephant – emotion – does most of the work, we must find ways to continuously engage it. And of course, the first step is to acknowledge its existence and impact in everything that we do. Let’s be careful though not to fool ourselves that direction is not important. The rider’s input is still essential, it’s just not the most important vehicle to change.

Give your people direction but most importantly, keep them motivated. Find ways to make them believe that they can successfully implement and sustain change.


Think of how change initiatives are typically rolled out in your organization. Do they focus on intellectually explaining the need for change or do they drive that perpetual motivation?

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