The struggle to adapt is more universal than we give creditfor. Humans like structure; we’re not programmed to deal with continuousuncertainty. Our routines and habits help us make sense of the world, and we don’tlike ambiguity. Yet change is a key feature of rapidly evolving market forces.
At WtF, we’re fascinated by the study of human behaviour. Webelieve that this understanding enables us to better adapt to emergentenvironments.
To understand why humans struggle with change, we asked ourresident psychology expert, Mike Jones, to explain. Mike’s military career,leading teams on the frontline of Iraq and Afghanistan, means he’s learned alot about navigating situational volatility. With an MSc in OccupationalPsychology, Mike’s specialist area is making sense of human behaviour. Here’s whatwe learned:
1) Mike, as human beings, why are we so resistant to change?
It’s well documented that when change initiatives fail, it’snot generally due to poor execution, but rather because of lack of human engagement.
Feelings of uncertainty and insecurity around our perceivedability to cope with change tends to diminish our acceptance of change itself.Selective perception and retention bias inhibits our focus on the positiveaspects of change; instead we tend to focus more on the perceived negativeaspects.
Our feelings and biases are fuelled further bymisunderstanding what proposed change might consist of, and how we may beimpacted, both at work and socially. This is never truer than when changeprogrammes are poorly communicated.
Research suggests that poor communication around change raisesour sense of threat, such that we become fearful of:
· Leaving the ’comfort zone’
· Loss of status and influence
· New responsibilities and higher expectations
· Potential impact on needs, including pay andsocial interaction.
Humans are creatures of habit, with an innate need for routine.Once formed, habits are hard to break, exacerbating anxiety and a sense of overwhelmwhen change is imposed.
A typical response to ’enforced’ change is to deny that changeis required - "We’ve always done it like this, why change now?"
As part of my MSc research, I explored individualdifferences in accepting change within the Military. My findings suggested:
· Younger cohorts are less open to change, andmore likely to quit a task / job when change is imposed. Older staff, bycomparison, would more likely work through change; the idea of changing jobsand the associated re-skilling disincentivises away from moving on.
· More experienced individuals are less likely toresist change, as they have greater understanding of WHY change is taking placethan those with less experience.
· While longer serving staff are less resistant tochange, this doesn’t necessarily mean that change is proactively embraced.Rather, this cohort will do the bare minimum in the wake of change, by no meansacting as change ’champions’.
· The higher the level of academic achievement,the more embracing of change an individual is likely to be, inferring that furthereducation invites open-mindedness, through critical thinking.
I believe these findings can be applied to wider worksettings. It’s powerful to understandthat the more (life) experience we accumulate, the more accepting of (or resignedto) change we potentially become.
2) A common response to imposed change seems to be fear. How does fearmanifest as a behaviour?
A sense of fear typically ignites the fight, flight orfreeze response. This is an inbuilt response to stress, and is critical for humansurvival from perceived threat or danger. Even when danger isn’t present,anxiety arising from perceived enforced change can trigger this response. Thisgives rise to significant physiological effects, as cortisol is released and remainspresent in the body.
Raised cortisol in the bloodstream can lead to mood swings,manifesting as anxiety, irritability or depression. Cortisol also negatively impactssleep and memory function. Disrupted sleep will, over time, impact workperformance, creating further stress and anxiety - a vicious circle unlessaddressed.
Most workplaces require teamwork, and effective teamworkrequires an environment of psychological safety, where team members know theycan take risks without threat of negative consequences.
When fear or anxiety are present, we find ourselves unableto form trusted relationships. Irritability persists, leading to emotive, irrationaldecision-making, rather than engaged reasoning. The longer anxiety persists, themore emotionally withdrawn we can become, potentially leading to absenteeism anddisengagement.
3) As work environments become more complex, what one skill will helpus, and why?
For anyone facing uncertainty and ambiguity, a key skill isthat of situational humility. This isparticularly true for leaders.
Humility requires putting others’ needs before your own. Ascommercial landscapes disrupt, there will increasingly be times where theemotional needs of the wider team should be prioritised over those of the leader.
Humility is underpinned by emotional intelligence, requiringenhanced self-awareness.
Situational humility requires confidence in one’s ownability, but also the mindset that it’s not always the job of leadership to’know’ everything. Rather, that the collective intelligence of the wider team isample to face any set of challenges. Trust is integral here, and our sense oftrust builds over time when leaders demonstrate consistent reliability.Emotional and unexpected outbursts can quickly erode trust within a team.
Research shows that leaders demonstrating situationalhumility are more proactively committed to continuous learning. Unfortunately, we regularly hear stories ofleaders, across all landscapes, who myopically fixate on controlling set outcomes,with little consideration of other perspectives. This immediately breedsdisengagement and hostility.
Those leaders who practice situational humility as default,will automatically garner increased loyalty and collective commitment tocomplex problem solving.
So, there it is. Fear is a natural response to enforcedchange; none of us like uncertainty. First-class empathic communication isessential throughout any business transformation programme - regular check-ins willensure all stakeholders are on-board.
Finally, when leading through change, thenumber one skill is that of situational humility - when we are self- aware, ourempathy, respect and support for others is visible, and we are able to taketeams on journeys through far more ambiguity than we ever might have imagined.