People only change in pain - Part 2

We tend to assess our situation wrong

Uwe Friedrichsen

13 minute read

Ladybird landing on some buds

People only change in pain - Part 2

In the previous post, I discussed that people tend to embrace change the more likely, the worse they experience their current situation or expect their future situation to become if they do not change.

I illustrated this irrational behavior and also introduced some reinforcing effects that tend to make change even more unlikely due to an inaccurate assessment of the current and future situation. In this post, I will dive deeper into these reinforcing effects and discuss the resulting effects.

The three reinforcing effects I introduced in the previous post are:

  • Change assessment depends on the perceived status quo
  • Gradual deterioration goes unnoticed
  • Future impact is underrated

Let us walk through them one by one.

Change assessment depends on the perceived status quo

We already discussed this effect in the previous post. Thus, let us just briefly revisit it:

If people experience their situation as really bad, they are very likely to take big efforts and risks to improve their situation. But if they experience their situation as okay-ish or better, they most likely are not willing to take efforts and risks to improve their current situation, even if they could improve their situation a lot more with a lot less effort and risk compared to the first scenario.

In other words: The less bad people experience their situation, the less likely they are willing to embrace change, no matter how big the expected improvement would be.

As already wrote in a previous post: This is not rational behavior. This is pure gut thinking. Efforts, risks and opportunities are not rationally judged. Rational thinking would let you happily move from okay to great, if the effort-risk-opportunity ratio is good.

Still, we usually simply ignore the effort-risk-opportunity ratio and only change if the situation feels really grim – no matter how good or bad the effort-risk-opportunity ratio is. Gut decision making at its best (or rather: worst).

Gradual deterioration goes unnoticed

The second effect is about gradual deterioration of the situation. People tend to rate their situation still as okay-ish even it actually is very bad if their situation worsened gradually from okay to bad over time. It is like the story 1 about the frog in hot water: If you put a frog in a glass filled with water at room temperature and then start to heat up the water, the frog will most likely stay in the water until it dies. If you put a frog in a glass filled with hot water, it will immediately try to get out.

Very bad situations in companies typically evolve over time. Nobody starts a job and says: “Wow, that is the worst job I have ever seen. Let me stay here for the next 10 years.”

Instead, the situation usually was okay or even fine when they started their job. And then the situation changed a bit. And then a bit more. Again and again. The typical reaction if such a change of the situation occurs is something like “I do not really like the change, but it is not bad enough to quit” or “Well, I am not sure if this is a good or bad thing. We will see”, or just “That does not make a big difference for me” – until eventually it turns out that it does.

Each deterioration of the status quo in isolation was not perceived so bad that it caused a strong reaction. People tend to accept small deteriorations of their situation and get used to it. After a while, they consider their situation okay again. And then the next small deterioration of their situation comes along and the game repeats. Eventually, people are stuck in a very bad situation but do not realize it. They still consider they situation okay-ish.

Humans are really good at adapting to all kinds of circumstances. Basically, this is a very useful trait. But sometimes it makes us blind for reality – especially when we stepwise grow into that reality.

Future impact is underrated

The third effect is that people tend to neglect – or at least massively undervalue – risks that lie in the future. If a risk lies in the immediate future (days or a few weeks, maximum), we tend to rate it correctly 2. But as soon as a risk lies further in the future, we start to undervalue it – the farther it lies in the future, the more we undervalue it. And if the risk lies more than just a few years in the future, we basically complete ignore it, even if it will occur for sure.

I think, this is still part of our primary instincts that helped us to survive as a species in the past: Surviving today and tomorrow was much more important than anything that might occur to us some day in the future. Thus, we learned to rate immediate risks very high and downgrade risks that lie in the future – at least those who survived in the past had that mental predisposition and inherited it to their descendants.

While this behavior was essential in the past to secure our survival as a species (and later also as an individual), in today’s complex (business) world it often backfires. We massively undervalue risks in the future. Thus, we fail to start mitigating them when we still have the time. And when they become so immediate that we realize we must respond to them, it typically is too late and they hit us with full force. 3

Stuck in resistance

If we combine these effects, we find ourselves in a place where people massively resist change even if their situation – assessed from the outside – is bad and/or will become bad in the foreseeable future. Still, as the status quo is perceived as sort of “okay” (no matter if it really is okay or just perceived that way) and the future risks of not changing are underrated, the people affected resist to change.

This is a situation, we can see in many companies: The company is not in a good situation. Or it is on its way to a bad situation if it does not change. Some people see the risks and try to respond 4. But most people in the company resist their attempts to implement a change because of the effects described above. 5

What can we do if we face such a situation?

If upper or top management needs to implement some kind of change, their typical reaction is to hire some consultants who should implement the change for them. While this is an easy way out for career-minded manager (if it should work, they take the credit; if not, they have someone between them and the problem, they can blame for the failure), success is accidental at best.

The consultants can only hope to motivate the employees of their client company to adopt the required change. They cannot change the people. As I tend to say:

You cannot change people. People can only change themselves.

The same is true for companies.

So, their relentless and often frustrating attempts to implement the change depends on the goodwill of the people affected as the consultants do not have any means at hand to force the change. And if you are stuck with a company where most people still feel “okay”, where people do not perceive any pain and cannot oversee the future effects of not changing, you will face a very hard, if not impossible mission. 6

This does not even take the middle and upper management into account who typically try to sabotage the change, either because some “competing” colleague initiated it or they are afraid the change could threaten their current status and career ambitions.

So again: What can we do if we face such a situation?

To be frank: I do not know.

I experienced this pattern several times myself and I know many more cases, other people experienced: Change was urgently needed and most people resisted it – inflicting harm on their future selfs.

The only common precondition I have seen in successful change initiatives was a sense of pain – as depressing I personally find it.

If people either experienced their current situation as really painful or were really afraid of the consequences of not changing, they tended to accept change. But if people did not experience some kind of pain, they usually preferred to resist change, even if the change would have improved their situation substantially.

Maybe this is what John Kotter meant when he wrote that you first need to establish a sense of urgency in his famous book “Leading change”. Maybe he meant you need to make the pain palpable first for all people affected.

Again, I find it very sad and depressing to see that most people only seem to respond to perceived pain if it comes to change. Personally, I would rather prefer an approach that is driven by reasoning.

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 really afraid of the consequences of not changing. Otherwise, they tend to resist change.

Aggravating factors are that the less pain people experience, the higher the expected benefits need to before they are willing to move. I.e., it is a lot simpler to move people from very bad to a tiny bit less bad than moving them from okay to great, even if the second change would be the much smarter move based on a rational evaluation.

Additionally, people often erroneously assess a bad status quo still as okay because their situation deteriorated stepwise and thus went unnoticed. Finally, most people underestimate future risks dramatically which makes it hard for them to correctly judge future risks and the changes needed now to counter them successfully.

Most change initiatives in companies start from a situation where the majority of people rate their situation as okay or at least okay-ish. At the same time, people are not able to rate the future risks of not changing correctly. This means most companies are stuck in continuous change resistance.

The only way to increase the probability of a successful change, I have seen is to create a sense of pain – or as John Kotter phrased it a bit nicer in his book “Leading Change”: You first need to establish a sense of urgency.

Without that sense of urgency or pain (I prefer the term “pain” because IMO it describes the underlying emotion better), most likely your change initiative will simply go down the drain without any sustainable effect, no matter how many change consultants you hire.

Personally, I would prefer a less painful and more rational way to approaching change. But I have not found one yet. Our deeply irrational behavior regarding change that was very useful to survive as a species thousands of years ago stands in our way today.

I am sorry not to have any better solution to offer. Still, I hope I gave you some thoughts to ponder …

  1. I hope it is only a story and that no one really tested if a frog would die in hot water if you heat up the water gradually. ↩︎

  2. Of course, we see people deliberately rating risks inaccurately all the time because they expect to gain an advantage from doing so. I will ignore this kind of behavior in this post for the sake of simplicity. This would open up a completely different discussion. This would be a discussion about intentional malicious behavior (sometimes filed under “(company) politics”), not about regular human behavior (I am still optimistic that the majority of mankind does not act with malicious intentions). ↩︎

  3. The underestimation of future risks matches another effect that can be observed very often. In some way both effects seem to be related: Most people have huge problems taking the factor “time” into account, not only but also in the context of change initiatives. If you, e.g., attempt to implement a change, you tend to get bombarded with “but”-questions, all claiming that the target state “cannot work” now. If you then explain that this is an evolution over time, that you first need to learn how to do things differently, how to find solutions for the existing problems and then will gradually evolve into a new status quo, you usually just get blank stares. Take, e.g., the discussion regarding electric cars. Most of the counterarguments I hear (and most people fall for) go “If everybody would have an electric car now, <X> would not work”. E.g., the electric power supply would break down if all these cars would charged right now. This reasoning completely neglects that not everybody has an electric car now. Even if starting tomorrow no cars with combustion engines would be sold anymore, it would take at least 15-20 years until electric cars would reach a market share of ~90% – more than enough time to address and solve all the typical “But if now …” counterarguments. But most people do not understand how pointless their reasoning is. They map everything on the status quo, i.e., in their mind everything happens “now”. They cannot extrapolate gradual developments over time. (Note that this is not a call to buy electric cars. My personal position regarding that topic is a bit more complex. I just wanted to illustrate the inability of most people to extrapolate developments over time.) ↩︎

  4. Based on my observations, interestingly top level managers quite often see the risks very clearly as they tend to have an outside-in perspective on their company. In stark contrast, middle and upper management typically resists change because they tend to perceive change as a potential threat to their status (unless it accidentally suits their career ambitions). ↩︎

  5. An extreme variant is the innovator’s dilemma as Clayton Christensen described it in his well-known book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. The innovator’s dilemma strikes when companies fail due to not understanding and responding to disruptive innovations. The typical reasoning of the change deniers in such situations is that the numbers would be good and their customers would also be happy with their services. This kind of change resistance is a variant of the general schema I describe in this post. The only difference is that disruptive innovations tend to change markets and thus customer demands much faster than normal innovations and improvements. When the companies ignoring those disruptive innovations eventually realize they need to adapt, it is too late for them because other players meanwhile unassailably took over the market. Popular examples were, e.g., Nokia missing the smartphone or Kodak missing digital photography. The latter was particularly ironic because Kodak was an early innovator in the area of digital photography but missed to exploit it people in charge did not want to endanger their successful conventional film business. ↩︎

  6. I do not want to express that getting the help of external consultants to facilitate a change initiative is futile. They can help in a lot of places. E.g., they can create safe spaces where people can test changed behavior before they need to commit to it and thus lose their fear of the unknown. Or they can support people in many other ways along their change. Still, those consultants can only support the change. They cannot guarantee or enforce a successful change. ↩︎