Why staff don’t buy into change

Humans stubbornly resist the best laid plans and noblest intentions

A company has invested heavily in an exercise to map out a comprehensive change initiative. Employee feedback suggests that they are willing to take part in that change for the sake of a better future.

Then reality sets in. Everyone in the company agrees change is needed, but just about nobody changes.

Basic concepts of psychology and economics explain why humans stubbornly resist the best laid plans and noblest intentions.

The first of these, “cognitive dissonance,” derives from psychology and is defined as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” For instance, it is hard to reconcile the statements, “I need to experience a normal, predictable working life” and “I must change my working life, making it less predictable, for the sake of future gain.”

Let’s add a concept from economics. The idea of “discounting” means we tend to give less value to things that are far away in time. So, an employee with a choice between living the customary working life that will help kill the organization in 10 years, and living an uncomfortably changing working life to avoid a far-off dreadful possibility, may well opt to continue the customary life.

Planners and strategic leaders constantly face the challenges of discounting and cognitive dissonance. They try to prepare a constituency for a future that is much less compelling to many than the here and now.

Techniques, some verging on the unethical, have been developed to deal with this problem. The planner, for instance, may falsely predict a dire and immediate catastrophe if her plans are not accepted.

Planners become the deliverers of “jeremiads.” A jeremiad was an exhortation to people to reform their ways to avoid the wrath of God as well as a prescription for how reform can take place, just like the preaching of the prophet Jeremiah. It is an effective rhetorical technique, but it fails if it does no more than frighten people into hopelessness or seduce them into baseless hope. Jeremiahs need to do more than predict the awful. They need to reward people in the present for moving toward the future.

Many Jeremiahs ply their trade in bureaucratized systems where passion is forbidden, where numbers matter and dreams do not, where standardized humourless reports replace clear vivid visions, where leaders claim they’re changing the future while not changing the present, where people are imprisoned by the date of the next quarterly financial report. One can be forgiven for a temptation to give up under these circumstances or to retreat into ineffective shrieking at imagined enemies.

The problem is compounded in transactional organizations — places where the organizational culture is determined by endless here-and-now transactions that cloud any drive to look into the future. I am not condemning transactional organizations, but with the good they bring there comes a kind of short-sightedness as well.

Planners are like corrective lenses, meant to counteract organizational myopia by fostering a focused longer-term view. But planners (whether they are strategic leaders or advisers to leaders) have their own problems with cognitive dissonance and are often faced with the two apparently contradictory observations: “Our plan is in the best interests of people in the organization” and “People don’t want to do what the plan requires.”

Planners are a perverse breed. Unlike most people who discount the future in favour of the present, they are tempted to discount the present in favour of the future. They create hope without either tools or a foundation, then blame others in the organization for not being as wise as they.

Although it seems a world away from today’s organizations, the decades-long temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has something to teach. The movement succeeded not only because it was driven by a clear vision, but also because people took part in groupings — anti-saloon leagues, temperance halls, abstainers’ societies — that rewarded participants with social validation, friendship and mutual support for acting as agents of change. These groupings offered them here-and-now benefits for thinking and acting on behalf of the longer term. It was these “bifocal” congregates of people, not the ideologues which spurred them, that were responsible for change.

The best planners and strategic leaders know this lesson and use it to build the future. The worst just write another report or yell at another enemy.

John Butler, a regular contributor to Canadian HR Reporter, is president of the Agora Group, a Markham, Ont.-based HR and health care management consulting firm. He can be reached at (905) 294-9762.

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