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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2019-07-03 14:55

Cathryn Barnard



Our workplaces are in the midst of game-changing transformation. Convergent trends are impacting the commercial landscape and most organisations are already...


Our workplaces are in the midst of game-changing transformation. Convergent trends are impacting the commercial landscape and most organisations are already struggling to make sense of, and keep up with, a new world order that will revolutionise the way we work as humans. 

The struggle to adapt is more universal than we give credit for. Humans like structure; we’re not programmed to deal with continuous uncertainty. Our routines and habits help us make sense of the world, and we don’t like ambiguity. Yet change is a key feature of rapidly evolving market forces. 

At WtF, we’re fascinated by the study of human behaviour. We believe that this understanding enables us to better adapt to emergent environments. 

To understand why humans struggle with change, we asked our resident psychology expert, Mike Jones, to explain. Mike’s military career, leading teams on the frontline of Iraq and Afghanistan, means he’s learned a lot about navigating situational volatility. With an MSc in Occupational Psychology, Mike’s specialist area is making sense of human behaviour. Here’s what we learned:   

1) Mike, as human beings, why are we so resistant to change? 
It’s well documented that when change initiatives fail, it’s not generally due to poor execution, but rather because of lack of human engagement. 


Feelings of uncertainty and insecurity around our perceived ability to cope with change tends to diminish our acceptance of change itself. Selective perception and retention bias inhibits our focus on the positive aspects of change; instead we tend to focus more on the perceived negative aspects.  

Our feelings and biases are fuelled further by misunderstanding what proposed change might consist of, and how we may be impacted, both at work and socially. This is never truer than when change programmes are poorly communicated.

Research suggests that poor communication around change raises our 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 and social 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 overwhelm when change is imposed. 

A typical response to ’enforced’ change is to deny that change is required - "We’ve always done it like this, why change now?" 

As part of my MSc research, I explored individual differences in accepting change within the Military.  My findings suggested: 
·       Younger cohorts are less open to change, and more likely to quit a task / job when change is imposed. Older staff, by comparison, would more likely work through change; the idea of changing jobs and the associated re-skilling disincentivises away from moving on.  ·       More experienced individuals are less likely to resist change, as they have greater understanding of WHY change is taking place than those with less experience. 

·       While longer serving staff are less resistant to change, 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 means acting as change ’champions’. 

·       The higher the level of academic achievement, the more embracing of change an individual is likely to be, inferring that further education invites open-mindedness, through critical thinking.   

I believe these findings can be applied to wider work settings.  It’s powerful to understand that the more (life) experience we accumulate, the more accepting of (or resigned to) change we potentially become.   

2) A common response to imposed change seems to be fear. How does fear manifest as a behaviour? 
A sense of fear typically ignites the fight, flight or freeze response. This is an inbuilt response to stress, and is critical for human survival from perceived threat or danger. Even when danger isn’t present, anxiety arising from perceived enforced change can trigger this response. This gives rise to significant physiological effects, as cortisol is released and remains present in the body. 


Raised cortisol in the bloodstream can lead to mood swings, manifesting as anxiety, irritability or depression. Cortisol also negatively impacts sleep and memory function. Disrupted sleep will, over time, impact work performance, creating further stress and anxiety - a vicious circle unless addressed. 

Most workplaces require teamwork, and effective teamwork requires an environment of psychological safety, where team members know they can take risks without threat of negative consequences. 

When fear or anxiety are present, we find ourselves unable to form trusted relationships. Irritability persists, leading to emotive, irrational decision-making, rather than engaged reasoning. The longer anxiety persists, the more emotionally withdrawn we can become, potentially leading to absenteeism and disengagement.  

3) As work environments become more complex, what one skill will help us, and why?   
For anyone facing uncertainty and ambiguity, a key skill is that of situational humility.  This is particularly true for leaders.   


Humility requires putting others’ needs before your own. As commercial landscapes disrupt, there will increasingly be times where the emotional needs of the wider team should be prioritised over those of the leader. 

Humility is underpinned by emotional intelligence, requiring enhanced self-awareness.  

Situational humility requires confidence in one’s own ability, 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 is ample to face any set of challenges. Trust is integral here, and our sense of trust builds over time when leaders demonstrate consistent reliability. Emotional and unexpected outbursts can quickly erode trust within a team.

Research shows that leaders demonstrating situational humility are more proactively committed to continuous learning.  Unfortunately, we regularly hear stories of leaders, across all landscapes, who myopically fixate on controlling set outcomes, with little consideration of other perspectives. This immediately breeds disengagement and hostility. 

Those leaders who practice situational humility as default, will automatically garner increased loyalty and collective commitment to complex problem solving.  


So, there it is. Fear is a natural response to enforced change; none of us like uncertainty. First-class empathic communication is essential throughout any business transformation programme - regular check-ins will ensure all stakeholders are on-board. 

Finally, when leading through change, the number one skill is that of situational humility - when we are self- aware, our empathy, respect and support for others is visible, and we are able to take teams on journeys through far more ambiguity than we ever might have imagined.


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Recruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.

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