Leading Change -- Why It's Hard And What Can Make It Easier

Earlier this week, I ran a program for leaders who are facing major transformation in their organizations. They didn't choose this change -- it has been thrust upon them as a result of major policy changes -- but for their organizations to survive, they must lead navigate this change. All reported frustration with employees who want things to stay the same.

If you're a leader who is trying to change the way your organization works by choice, or by necessity, I suspect you'll be pretty familiar with people digging their heels in. You too may find yourself getting really frustrated with the people around you and their lack of flexibility. You may even look for a trait that explains their behavior -- they've been here too long, they're stubborn, they're old, they're too young, they're cranky, they're engineers, social workers, programmers. Whatever.

Is it really their fault?

The truth is, all humans are hard-wired to dig their heels in when faced with change. Psychologists and behavioral economists have long observed a human trait, called the "endowment effect" or "status quo bias," in which people tend to ascribe more value to things they already have, than things they don't. It has been put forward as a reason for why most national referendums fail and why many people in the US (even those without health care and in need of it), when given the choice, said they would reject health care reforms. In other words, for most people, it's "better the devil you know, than one you don't."

Why is it so hard?

But why are we hard-wired to avoid change? One reason is survival. When my first child was 18 months old. I had a moment of parental hubris (I'll confess it wasn't the first or last). I secretly patted myself on the back for my child being an incredibly adventurous eater. But suddenly, when my child turned 2, it was if a switch had flipped. My child's adventurousness disappeared completely and they shifted to only eating what was familiar, refusing to try new things.

It turns out, I'm not alone. In traditional hunter-gatherer societies, it's at around the age of 2 that children start to explore. They can walk with confidence, and parents are often pretty good at tracking footprints so they don't worry too much if they wander off a bit. However it is critical to the survival of that child that they don't start experimenting on their own -- if they start tasting the red berries by themselves, or swimming in that pond unsupervised -- it could be fatal. This instinct, to stick with what we know, has kept us safe for tends of thousands years.

Of course this changes over time, as teenagers, our risk tolerance goes way up again, and we start to explore, and experiment with glee, but then, as we enter early adulthood, that all settles down -- we avoid trying new things.

So what can we do?

So if you are a leader trying to change the way people work, it helps to take a moment and think about how you reacted the last time someone asked you to change. It could be the time a friend or family member asked you to change a habit (could you pick your socks up off the floor? Could you rinse the bowls before you put them in the dishwasher?). Or it could be the time you were asked to change in a big way -- can you take on this extra work? Could you move to a different city?

Think about how you felt. Were you excited? Frightened? Angry? All of these and more? If someone was watching your reaction, do you think you too might be labeled as stubborn or stuck in your ways? We're all guilty of it.

It's pretty common to have reactions like fear, anger and excitement when faced with change. It's common to feel judged -- if you want me to change, you must think the way I was doing it before was wrong. And that feeling, of being judged, means we are more likely to get riled up and dig our heels in.

If you are leading change, take a moment to acknowledge people's fears and anxieties. Speak about your own feelings. Take time to listen to others and validate their feelings. These are normal reactions, not a sign of a flawed or deeply stubborn human being.

Just this simple act of acknowledging your own experiences with change, and respecting the process people need to go through can be very powerful can be the difference between engaging and alienating your team.