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

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CONTINUOUS CHANGE

2020-09-29 11:26

Cathryn Barnard

Blog, CONTINUOUS CHANGE, FUTURE OF WORK CONSULTING, CHANGE MANAGEMENT, WORKFORCE WELLBEING,

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CONTINUOUS CHANGE

When we started Working the Future, our primary goal was to inform. We wanted to help business leaders understand the wide range of factors changing...

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When we started Working the Future, our primary goal was to inform. We wanted to help business leaders understand the wide range of factors changing work in the 21st Century. These trends are already having game-changing impact on the structure of organisations.

‘The Future of Work’ is complex, but has, without doubt, become 2020’s hot topic.

Our analysis began in 2016, weeks after the UK referendum result. We quickly realised that the myriad ways in which work is changing had the potential to create as much challenge as leaving the EU.

This fuelled a strong moral imperative to share findings as best we could, and hopefully minimise widespread socio-economic impact.


Forearmed, as they say, is forewarned. My whole-hearted belief is that the sooner we understand the multiple forces transforming our workplaces, the sooner business strategy can reboot to ensure longer term structural resilience. But encouraging business leaders to focus on what lies downstream in a commercial world that increasingly prioritises short-term results hasn’t always been as straightforward as I’d have hoped.Then along came COVID-19. 


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In 1970, Alvin Toffler published Future Shock, which he described as: 


"... the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time."


The changes we’ve all experienced this year, across every aspect of our lives, have been seismic. And continuous change and ambiguity aren’t showing signs of abating yet.


Despite everything I thought I knew about the future of work, and despite my tendency towards optimism, I’m personally finding continuous uncertainty a struggle. 


And I believe we need an open conversation about this. When we voice our thoughts and share our experience, we allow others permission to contemplate similarly. And the process of normalising begins. Shared experience enables others to feel less isolated, which in turn makes living with continuous change more tolerable.


Humans aren’t wired to cope with uncertainty – we prefer structure, routine, and habit. 


Continuous uncertainty leaves us in a resting state of mental high alert that, unchecked, easily triggers stress and anxiety.Our brains process vast amounts of information every day. To cope with the volume, we use mental shortcuts wherever possible. Have you ever done that reading test to see how much you understand, even when key letters are missing, or words are jumbled? ‘Typoglycemia’ is a great example of the brain’s ability to take assimilate vast amounts of information quickly. So’s driving on autopilot. We’ve all had those moments where we suddenly realise we can’t remember that last stretch of drive home. Our lives are stuffed full of these mental timesavers - it’s part of how we evolved to become the complex beings we are today. 


But when so many things we’d previously assumed ‘to be’ are suddenly thrown into disarray, it’s blind-siding. To go from relative stability where we can make assumptions about how things ‘are’, to a world where it’s not safe to assume very much at all, is, to say the least, discombobulating.


One thing the pandemic has laid bare is the need for personal flexibility and adaptability. Pre-COVID-19, I considered myself flexible, but this years’ events have caused me to re-evaluate. 


Adaptability is increasingly listed as a key soft skill requirement for the future of work. While achievable, I think we need to be honest – it doesn’t come without significant mental load.


Bluntly, continuous change is exhausting.


Needing to continuously update the mental models you use to navigate the world takes lots more energy. Worse, many of the leisure activities we’d usually engage in for relaxation, are themselves subject to continuous change. 


Most downtime activities we’d hitherto taken for granted – shopping, meeting friends for coffee, Friday nights out – suddenly have risk attached. In the COVID age, everything seems to require more preparation. Spontaneity is dead. 


In 2020, change management is big business. But more than 70 percent of organisational change programmes fail, and a primary cause is lack of time spent engaging with those impacted. 


Personally, I don’t think we pay enough attention to the psychology, or human side, of business transformation. What does it take for individuals to feel emotionally committed to change?


But this year we’ve more to get our heads round - the psychology of continuous change.


 Change is hard. Building new behaviours takes deliberate and applied effort. We’re creatures of habit and unless we focus, we soon revert to the path of least resistance. 


In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes habits as the “compound interest of self-improvement”. He talks about “1 percent better”. He emphasises that successful habit change takes consistent effort. Change means showing up every single day, and mindfully practising that new behaviour until it becomes automatic. 


2020 culture is one of immediate gratification – we overlook that change takes time. Repetition is ‘boring’ and so we move onto other things. We don’t like discomfort. 


As business leaders, we need to get a far better handle on the psychology of change. We need to acknowledge that sustainable change takes time and effort, and that success comes mostly from emotional re-adjustment. Change will only ever be as effective as the least engaged person on your team. 


By first understanding the psychology of change, we become better prepared for continuous change. 


Continuous change underscores the landscape we now find ourselves in, and we need to be realistic about the mental toll it takes. 


This starts with us. As leaders, we need, as a point of urgency, to be open about how much continuous change has added to our stress levels this year. We’re supposed to be the ones in charge, and even if things are going OK, I’m not sure it's honest to pretend everything’s perfectly fine. 


Right now, I think the most helpful thing we can do as leaders is to take time to be mindful – to reflect on how 2020 has overloaded us. By acknowledging the psychological impact of continuous change, we’ll become better placed to help our teams adapt. 


All psychology research starts with case studies. First person accounts provide a story, and humans learn better from story than from data. We like to hear how people like us overcame similar challenges to the ones we’re experiencing.


That’s why I’ve written this. I hope that acknowledging my own journey might trigger a wider, more open dialogue about the psychological impact of continuous change, and help others normalise their own experience.


Continuous change is here for the foreseeable. We may as well try and make the best of it.

 

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

 

References:

Toffler, A. (1970). Future Shock. New York: Random House

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits - Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results. New York: Penguin Random House

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