Embracing change like a long lost lover

People always resist change? A popular notion, but simply not true.

People always resist change? A popular notion, but simply not true.

People love change. Seriously, they do. And yet, we keep telling each other that change is a bad thing, and most managers I meet talk of resistance to change in their organizations. These are the managers who say they want to improve things, and then complain that their people don’t want any part of it.

Why do I say we love change? Because it’s hardwired into our biology to seek improvements and new ways to do things. Before I explain more, take a look a these examples of change from everyday life, and tell me that people wouldn’t love this:

  • Your lose your office, but get a new one twice the size and with a better view.
  • Your old computer gets replaces with a the latest model.
  • You give up your old car for a brand new 300bhp BWM or Mercedes.
  • You move out of an old and small apartment, and into a large, beautifully renovated house.
  • Your phone breaks, and you get to choose from any of the latest models at the store.
  • Your boss stops handing out orders and instead ask which tasks you would prefer.

“Ah, but those are nice things, and all improvements from what was before” you might object. And yes, they are. But that’s the whole point of change: To improve on what is. No-one sets our to reorganize the company to provide a worse experience for the customer, or to be less successful as a business. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Wired to seek out change

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years ago, evolution made us explorers. We love seeing out new experiences and challenges, and that’s why kids are so adventurous and playful. They explore the world. Our biology supports this behavior by releasing endorphins when we discover something pleasant. These hormones makes us measurably happier and more energetic, so you can consider it a reward for positive surprises, and thus a system to encourage seeking out novelty.

As adults, many people tend to not throw themselves at new possibilities. The causes are many, and include both cultural influences (we are taught in school not to play anymore, to respect authority and not to stir things up), your biological nest-builder instincts (let’s not take any chances while the kids are small) as well as forces of habit (hamburgers are nice, I think I’ll just stick with those). So we tend do choose the known over the unknown. But, and this is important, we still find joy in positive changes when they happen, and we will take the bigger office any day. As long as we get to bring our family photos and the stapler with us, that is.

So, we actually do like change, if it’s for the better. Why is it then, that so often changes at workplaces lead to all sorts of problems and resistance? To put it simply: Because the wrong people decide on the changes to be made.

Top-down = poor by design

110 years ago, Ford adopted the principles of Taylor, the most famous management consultant in history. At the Ford factories they became hugely successful by adopting a style where management knew best and therefore told workers exactly what to do, no questions asked. Great if you’re building primitive cars as fast as humanly possible! Not so great in today’s complex world, where most work consist of countless of interactions between large numbers of people.

And yet, we still do what Taylor taught us. We asume that management knows best, and therefore should be the ones to decide what needs to change and how. Meaning they almost always get it wrong and bring about changes that make it harder for people to do a good job, instead of easier.

Danish chain of grocery stores Irma shows the way forward. Irma is in the high-quality market, and somewhat pricier that the discount brands. And so, when on September 15th 2008 Lehman Brothers went belly-up, Irma experienced a 5% drop in revenue overnight. Customers simple started shopping for cheaper goods elsewhere, despite thet fact, that no danes actually worked at Lehman Brothers, and no-one had lost neither their job nor their savings. Simply feeling that times were though was enough.

How did Irma respond? With cutbacks of course. There really was not alternative. But here’s how they differed: Where a more traditional (Tayloristic) CEO would had ordered stores to make X number of layoffs, save Y on marketing and increase the prices of all products by Z%, legendary CEO Alfred Josefsen (awarded Leader of the Year 2003) let the people affected by the changes make the call.

Each store was given the full picture regarding the dire straits the company was facing, and it was then up to each store to make the changes possible, and save money where it made sense. As Alfred Josefsen explained it to me: “Only at each store do they have detailed knowledge of their local clientele, insight into which products do well, knowledge of the behavior of the local competition as well as insight into the talents of each of their employees. I couldn’t possibly make better decisions at head office than they themselves could.”

Involvement is the path to happiness and success

The Irma example is your solution in a nutshell. We cannot force poor changes on people and expect them to be happy about it, it’s a recipe for disaster. But what we can do is provide them with the full picture and engage them in finding the best possible solution. Thats what many small start-ups do so well – the engage their people in crafting a desired future, instead of letting some distant CEO make all the calls. For the dynamic and modern workplace, embracing change feels like embracing and old love, and who wouldn’t want that.

Jon Kjær Nielsen, M.Sc., is a professional speaker and bestselling author, helping workplaces achieve success through shaping a happier and more engaging workplace. His core message: That we can all shape our everyday lives, and the lives of those around us, if we take simple and consistent action on a daily basis to better our situation. Watch his TEDx talk here, or download his free ebook with 12 tools to more happiness at work.