“Change is the only constant” goes the refrain. There would be little need for change if people were happy to stay the same as they are now. You know that change is uncomfortable. It doesn't matter how big or small the change is; it's how uncomfortable that change makes you feel. For some, difference is something to be avoided. If they appear to go along with the required change, it is because they (perceive that they) have no choice, For others, they'll actively seek change. Staying the same is boring, they need change, they need to learn. They are incomplete if they are not learning to be better. Some people initially resist transformation but accept it after time or practice. For these individuals the transformation has to be proven to be valuable. And there are those who initiate change, sometimes just for the sake of change. And change often fails because of your discomfort with change. How can I change an organisation if I don’t like change myself?
Try a little experiment with me. Fold your arms in front of you and settle for a moment.
- Now, switch the way you fold your arms. Instead of right over left, change it to left over right for example.
- How comfortable are you? A few people who do this feel fine, most will soon revert to their preferred, and far more comfortable, old way of folding their arms.
- How long would it take you to force yourself to switch your arm folding, before you became comfortable? A day, a week, a month, a year? Never?
- However long it would take you, there would be many times when you “slipped back into your old ways”. Especially under pressure. Perhaps you would eventually switch forever, perhaps you would revert to your original way of doing things. It all depends on how motivated you are to change and if there was a purpose of changing.
Most transformation programmes fail to deliver because most people neglect the key elements that facilitate change to take place. To help transform anyone they need to be encouraged, enabled and empowered. Fall short on one, and the transformation project will not achieve the desired change.
Why is change so difficult?
Going on a journey with people through change can be challenging and exhausting. Bringing sustainable change is even harder. Most people resist change even when they see the need and believe it can occur.The owner of the first hotel I managed was just 40 when he suffered a heart attack. His lifestyle, booze, food and a lack of regular exercise were contributory factors but prior to the heart attack, there were no significant symptoms. Life was good, and then BAM! He was on the floor in agony. He survived. His doctor told him bluntly that he had to change his diet, give up alcohol, smoking and take up regular exercise. Change or die! A stark choice. And one that many people face. Initially, my boss came out of hospital ready and eager to take this advice seriously and changed everything that was harming his health. It wasn't easy for him, but he stuck with it and now enjoys a slim, healthy life retired and sailing around the Mediterranean. Yet, in the US alone, some 90% of heart bypass patients can't change their lifestyles, even at the risk of dying. It's not surprising then that changing people's behaviour in business is a challenge. And you would think that I, as a reasonably intelligent human being would have learned from that particular experience, or at least learned from life. But no. I maintained my personal biases and beliefs that such a thing would never happen to me. I wouldn’t be someone who suffered a heart attack because of bad choices. We rarely learn from observing what happens around us, to others or from what others do, unless there is something of value for us personally. Something that is more valuable and does not get rejected due to pre-conceived biases.
How people face change
People respond to change typically in four different ways depending on their personalities and past experiences:
- Innovators – who value change and often try to make it happen. Even innovators, though, will create change that support their own beliefs and biases. And sometimes, an innovator is just a rebel in disguise and create change just to disrupt the status quo.
- Embracers – who thrive on change and accept it with enthusiasm, sometimes without thinking too much about it. These people love difference. They need change. And there's the rub. Embracers will embrace the change training brings immediately and run with it, right up to the moment that they need to change again. Or even, to change back to their old way of doing a thing. Why because, change is change, even when it is changing back.
- Acceptors – who initially resist change but eventually go along with it because there is no alternative or they find that the change genuinely does bring value.
- Resistors – who may not even notice the change, deliberately ignore it, or be so overwhelmed that they push it out of their awareness. Some even deny any need for change and refuse to budge an inch. The transformation project is, for them, simply not important enough to be deemed worthy of the effort.
People usually lean towards one of these responses. There's some excellent news, though: simply because you are reading this, you are likely to be an innovator or embracer. If you are reading this reluctantly, you're an acceptor. And those who aren't reading this… well, they're the resistors (but, of course, they won't know that because they didn't read it!). How then, do we help change happen? For that, you need to use the triangle of influence.