Change is a perennial topic in business and in life. But one common saying about change—that people hate it—is patently untrue. Here’s why.
First, a quick conversation about the real meaning of that word. Change requires action, action requires motion, and motion requires we stop standing still. Therefore, motion is potential discomfort. The reason we say people don’t like change is because we’re imaging that things being different will require someone to experience pain.
I’m not the only person saying this. A piece from the Harvard Business Review on change makes several points:
Change is…Loss of control.
Change is…More work.
Change is…Ripple effects.
Change is…Loss of Face.
It’s true that change in a business context often means these things. But change isn’t necessarily negative and isn’t necessarily unwanted. Imagine the following kinds of change:
- Your favorite, poor-performing sports team suddenly begins winning games
- You receive an unexpected bonus at work
- Your best friend wins a vacation sweepstakes and wants to bring you along
- A respected colleague pays you a compliment
- An opportunity for a promotion becomes available and you learn you have the job if you want it
These are all forms of change, and most people would love any of them. It’s not strictly accurate to say that “people hate change.” People sometimes adore change. Sometimes people work hard to make change happen. So why are we so obsessed with a broadly negative view toward transforming any organization, modifying any policy, or even introducing a new idea?
I think it’s because of one of my favorite pieces of social psychology, the fundamental attribution error. This is the idea that we tend to consider other people’s behavior as an aspect of their true identity, but our own behavior as connected to our situation.
Put simply: if someone else trips, it’s because they are clumsy. If we trip, it’s because the architect failed to design the stairs correctly.
We think “people hate change” because we think that other people can’t handle change—even though we can handle it ourselves. It’s a version of related phenomenon called the self-serving bias (and why you should use a windows and mirrors strategy in your communication.)
So what should we say instead? I like the phrase “change impacts people” because it reminds us that whatever we do will almost certainly have an effect on others.
In order to reduce people’s resistance to change, remember the following:
Use an Inclusive Process
Management and executives make two choices every time they issue a decision: the choice at hand, and the decision of who to talk to when making the decision. Incredibly, people continue to keep secrets at work and fail to include stakeholders.
Instead, give people a sense of what decisions will be made in the future. Consider a suggestion box or town hall meetings. Demonstrate you are actually responding to the ideas, not just letting your team spin their wheels. Refer key questions to committees that consist of people from every level in the company. Where appropriate, take a vote. Be as transparent as you can be in order to avoid people feeling left out.
Describe Change as Positive
All change can be perceived as negative. When one company wins a contract, others may have lost it. When someone retires after many years of service, someone has to learn what they did and try to replace them. No matter what the situation it can be easily spun as a problem.
That’s why it’s helpful to characterize all change in as positive a way is reasonable. Even bad news—such as impending layoffs—can be combined with good news like severance pay, outplacement services, and early retirement options. Be careful not to be guilty of spin, but find something that will benefit those who are negatively affected.
Develop a Culture of Brutal Honesty
Change is often hated because people think it will become even more unfortunate than they anticipated. We’re used to bad news getting worse. That’s often tied to our expectation that when we hear something we’re not getting the whole story. Details are left out to soften the blow. Or, we’re kept entirely out of the loop and suddenly surprised with the news.
Instead, try and tell all of the details every time. Give people the exact numbers and the all of the backstory. Type it up and share it in written form so that it’s more permanent and doesn’t spread like gossip across the office. The more honesty is part of the experience of working in your company, the less people will fear change when it happens. They will be confident that they truly know what’s going on.
Stop saying “people hate change.” It’s not true. Instead, it’s that people hate the way change usually happens. Be a part of improving that process—in your company, in your organization, and everywhere in your life.