People only change in pain - Part 1

We do not act as rational as we think we do

Uwe Friedrichsen

7 minute read

Butterfly in front of some flowers

People only change in pain - Part 1

In a previous post, I discussed that the decision process, if confronted with change, is not rational but rather a gut decision. I also briefly mentioned that people tend to embrace change the more willingly, the worse they experience their current situation (or the more they are afraid of negative future implications if they do not change now).

This irrational behavior has quite severe implications regarding most change initiatives we can observe in companies these days. Therefore, I would like to dig a bit deeper into this topic in this post and the next one.

In this first post, I will illustrate the problem and introduce some reinforcing effects. In the second post, I will dive deeper into the reinforcing effects, discuss the resulting effects and what it means for change efforts.

Change is everywhere

Before diving into the problems with change, let me briefly clarify what I mean with change:

With “change”, I mean everything that means doing things differently or doing different things. I do not only mean the big change initiatives, we see from time to time in companies. I also mean the smaller changes.

If you work as an IT service provider as I do, often the contracting decision maker adds some hidden agenda to the official mission. E.g.: “Please make my development team more agile while implementing the solution with them.”. Or: “Please teach them DevOps practices while implementing the solution with them.”. Or something else along those lines.

This is not a big, official change initiative. This is just some “small” side task, you are asked to accomplish. But still, you are expected to change those people.

Well, easier said than done …

Same options, different responses

I tend to say:

People only change when they feel pain.

To be completely clear: I do not want to encourage anyone to inflict pain on others to trigger a desired change. 1

This statement simply expresses my observation that people who are at least content with their situation tend to resist change a lot more often than people who strongly dislike their situation (or fear the expected consequences of not changing).

Let me unpack this a bit complicated sentence. Imagine you ask a person at two different points in time to change in a certain way. Both times you ask for the exact same change: Same opportunities. Same risks.

  • The first time, the person perceives their current situation as “mostly okay”. Even if the situation is not really good, even if it is less than “okay”, most likely the person will reject the change.
  • The second time, the person perceives their current situation as “really bad”. Most likely, the person will embrace the change.

Even if the opportunities would be smaller the second time and the risks would be bigger, the response pattern would most likely be the same.

Let us illustrate this behavioral pattern with a little example:

Assume you have gained some pounds too much – too little exercise, too much sitting in your job, but also at home, too much food, especially snacks between meals, and maybe a bit too much alcohol (not way too much, just a bit too much). You also know that not doing anything about will be detrimental to your future health.

You sit at home on your couch again, some snacks and a drink in reach, the remote control of your TV in your hands. As so often there is nothing good on TV. But it is quite comfy. You do not feel great, you have a bit of a bad conscience for slacking again, but overall you feel okay-ish.

Now I come along and ask you to get up and do sports. I would even join you. Let us go to the gym together.

You know, some exercise would be good for you. You are not happy about that “life belt” around your waist. You are out of breath after taking the stairs to your office on the 4. floor. And your doctor also told you at the last checkup that your current condition may lead to health problems in the future.

Will you get up? Probably not.

More likely, your weaker self will win your inner struggle. Yes, the TV program is crap, but you still feel okay-ish. Your sofa is comfy after all and that warning of your doctor … well, maybe another time. Thanks for asking, Uwe, but I think I will stay on my couch. Maybe there is something good on the other channel. And if not, I still have Netflix (or whatever streaming provider you prefer).

Now let us sketch a different scenario:

Your overweight and lack of movement lead to health issues. The doctor gave you some medication that give you a bit of relief. But the side effects of the medication are quite bad. Most of the time you feel sh***y. And your doctor told you at your last checkup with a very serious look that you better start doing sports right away, or …

Again, I come along and ask you to get up and do sports together.

Will you get up? Probably yes.

The interesting part: The effort needed to start doing sports, i.e., to embrace the change, is a lot higher in the second scenario. Due to your worse condition, it will be a lot harder for you to get up and do sports. Still, it is a lot more likely that you will get up.

Why? Because you do not experience your situation as okay-ish anymore. You experience pain. And you are genuinely afraid of much more pain if you do not change.

Embracing the required change would have been a lot easier in the first scenario, but the change was rejected because the pain (including fear of much more pain in the future) was missing.

Response to change is irrational in many ways

You can experience the same effect in companies. As long as people experience their situation as okay-ish or better, they most likely resist change, even if their situation would improve a lot with the change. If they experience their situation as very bad on the other hand, they will embrace change a lot more willingly. In other words:

  • Change assessment depends on the perceived status quo

Additionally, we can observe two additional effects that add to this behavior:

  • Gradual deterioration goes unnoticed
  • Future impact is underrated

These effects significantly add to an inaccurate assessment of the current situation and thus often irrationally raise the bar regarding change. It makes people rate their situation still being okay-ish or better, even if it is a lot worse in reality. Therefore, they refuse to change even if it is obvious from the outside how urgently the change is needed.

We will dive deeper into these effects in the next post.

Summing up

Most people only change if they feel pain: Either they experience their current situation as very bad and desperately want to improve it or they are genuinely afraid of the consequences of not changing. Otherwise, they typically refuse to change.

Additionally, people tend to rate their current situation better than it actually is due to some additional effects we will dive into in the next post. We will also discuss the resulting effects and what we can do about it. Stay tuned … ;)

  1. Of course, fear and pain are means used very often throughout the history of mankind to coerce a desired behavior. Many regimes use intimidation, fear and worse to control the population. We also see it in economic contexts – even inside companies. Usually you do not find the threat of physical violence inside companies, but you still find the mechanics of controlling people via fear and pain. Therefore we cannot simply ignore the fact that threatening with immediate or future pain is also a way to enforce a desired change. Still, I will not explore this way of enforcing change in this post. Instead I will focus on less harmful – and IMO better and more sustainable – ways of driving change. ↩︎