Why do we find it so hard to cope with change?

I ask myself this question almost every single day.

Because in my everyday work it is me who constantly bothers others to address change. With every good intent, I support teams to improve the way they cooperate and to make them more efficient. I help teams increase their level of self-organization and at the same time require their managers to delegate responsibility. Whenever I am accompanying innovation teams, together with the team I want to challenge their ideas and to find evidence why these cannot work. This process is necessary for the team to ensure by itself that it does not simply chase an illusion, hence investing in the wrong ideas. And yes: my work can mean a great deal of change for those involved, and it may well feel very uncomfortable.

Although I have been doing this for quite some time now (approximately 9 years), I do still wonder over and over again why people find it so hard to go down the path I have suggested – a path that is mostly new and unfamiliar to them.

Sometimes, these people directly and very honestly express their resistance; this is a somewhat more comfortable situation for me as I can react to their responses and address their concerns. Sometimes, I do not realize that there actually is a certain level of resistance, or notice this resistance only much later. That’s the worse scenario, for me and for the team. And yes, some of my projects have failed, too...

But why do we react to change so differently?

First of all, I am convinced that part of our willingness to accept change is due to genetic predisposition. The Riemann-Thomann model introduces four different categories for behavioral preferences of humans, with these preferences varying greatly from individual to individual: the need for closeness (harmony and feeling togetherness), for distance (autonomy and individuality), for continuity (structure, organization and visibility) and for change (spontaneity and transformation). The latter two categories very obviously influence the individual willingness to change: If one of your co-workers needs a lot of structure and visibility, he/she will be having a lot more difficulties to cope with change than a co-worker who is virtually longing for variety and something new. This is, initially, the perspective I want to take of the team members and managers who were entrusted to me.

I a second step, I look into the individual change history of the team members; needless to say that this is limited to the insights they provide me with. The fact how much change people have experienced so far has a very strong influence on how open or reluctant they are to accept change. If somebody has already seen many changes – such as relocations, job changes, change of partners, staying abroad, children – and has made largely positive experiences, he or she will not be afraid of the next change. 

Many people say, somewhat succinctly, that senior citizens have less willingness to change than younger people. My experience in working with teams and managers to implement transformation processes shows a different picture: the people's willingness to change is much less correlated with age than with their genetic predisposition and individual change history. Whoever has gone through a lot of changes will remain largely flexible even at old age. One example that comes to my mind is the way the older generation has been dealing with the pandemic. I’ve heard them say something like: “We survived the War; we will survive this, too.” The older ones among us have shown much more flexibility than the younger ones in their reactions to the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic.

The success of any change processes also depends on the degree and the pace of change and on how transparent and comprehensible the objective is for those involved. 

In a nutshell: In future, I will approach transformation processes from two perspectives:

  1. Is the person involved more inclined to continuity or to change (Riemann-Thomann model)?
  2. How much change has this person experienced or actively shaped so far?

If I then find that I am dealing with an employee or a manager who is somewhat less willing to introduce changes, then I can rely on the following measures:

  • State the necessity and objective in a more transparent and comprehensible way.
  • Adjust the pace and/or the degree of change – at least for those who have difficulties with accepting change.

This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here

Further reading:

Andrea SchmittInnovationstrainerinAm Mittelpfad 24aD 65520 Bad Camberg+49 64 34-905 997+49 175 5196446
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