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Why Do People Resist Change?

Why do people resist change?

Why do people resist change?

There are two main reasons why people resist change.

1. Change requires a change of habits.

2. Change introduces uncertainty.

1. Change requires a change of habits.

Many people resist change because, fundamentally, we are all creatures of habit.

We operate according to habit-patterns which we repeat every day. We have speech habits, eating habits, good habits and bad habits. And we find it difficult to change our habits, even our bad habits.

Humans organise their days by using habitual patterns of behaviour; patterns of thought, speech and actions.

For example, the English language contains approximately 1,000,000 words but most people habitually use a much smaller number of words in their everyday language. The average person uses only about 2,600 words, referred to as their "active vocabulary". You know and understand many more than 2,600 words, but you habitually use this small proportion of words because it is easier than creating new patterns of speech.

Habits are automated forms of action, creating action without conscious thought. Habits take the place of creative thinking. Habits allow you to make your way through the day with the minimum of mental effort. So, you eat, drive, speak and type, by using habitual routines.

In some respects, habits are beneficial because they make the complex tasks of living more manageable. But in other ways habits are detrimental because they make us resistant to change.

Habits make change more difficult.

In order to act in any way contrary to an existing habit pattern, you have to really stop and think, and put in a concentrated, conscious effort. If you have always done something a certain way, then changing your habit is very difficult. Making a change requires breaking a habitual pattern. And breaking habits is difficult, which means change is difficult. So, we don't accept change easily. We resist change.

For an example on how difficult it is to change a habit, try this:

Fold your arms across your chest. Notice which arm is on top and which is underneath.

Then unfold your arms.

Then fold your arms again, but this time do it the other way around.

Notice how difficult it is and how awkward it feels.

Now if I told you that this New Way of folding your arms is the "proper way" and from now on, you are expected to fold your arms in the New Way, then you would probably be annoyed and would try to resist.

The next time you were in a meeting, and your mind was occupied with the content of the conversation, and you went to fold your arms, you would automatically fold your arms in the Old Way: irrespective of your new training and of your recent instructions on how to "properly" fold your arms.

What is true for arm folding is true for practically every other habit you have.

It is difficult to change any habit, and so people like to keep things as they are. That way, they don't have to change habits and life can continue as normal.

2. Change introduces uncertainty.

Just as people love habits, they hate uncertainty. People much prefer certainty.

Human brains need to act in circumstances that are forever changing and where knowledge is limited and uncertain.

In order to cope with the inherent uncertainty of living, human brains create certainty by adopting beliefs, which they assume to be true and take to be certain.

By the time you reach adulthood you have developed a set of beliefs which you hold as certain knowledge. These are the cultural norms.

"Thou shalt not steal"

"Thou shalt return borrowed books"

"Thou shalt drive your car on the left side of the road",

You don't keep changing your life rules every day. Your political, religious, ethical, artistic and other views are stable over time. (Though they do evolve as you get older). These beliefs took years to develop and they act as your guidance mechanism. You act in certain ways because you see the world, in all its complexity, through a set of beliefs which you are "certain are true". You trust your beliefs are the "correct ones".

So, for example you may be a true-blue conservative, or you may be a lifelong labour supporter. On the other hand, you may be neither, because you believe that you cannot trust politicians of any persuasion.

We create belief systems of politics, religion and social conduct, in order to provide us with a sense of certainty in an uncertain world. We like certainty.

But change brings UNCERTAINTY. If you are required to make a change to your actions, then you are being asked either to go against your current beliefs, or to change your beliefs.

But change them to what?

Remember, negative feedback means that what you have been doing, is not working and that you need to change your current plan and action.

BUT negative feedback often does not instruct you as to what is the right response.

The success formula only tells you that change is needed. It does not tell you specifically in what ways to change.

So, the thought occurs to you; If you change plan A to plan B, will plan B work any better than plan A? You cannot be certain.

The thought crosses your mind "why not stick to the current failing plan, because it may be better than the untested new plan."

Hence the phrase, "Better the devil you know".

"Better the devil you know" means although we don't like the current situation; at least we are certain of what it is. If we make changes, we may end up with something worse. So, it means putting up with a horrible situation, for fear that a change might lead to an even worse one.

So, although people hate uncertainty, they will often stick to a plan that they know is failing, in preference to changing to the uncertainty of a new plan.

How to prepare for change

In order to make changes, you must be prepared to accept the discomfort of changing your habits.

It can take weeks or even months to settle down to a new habit pattern. During that time the natural tendency will be to revert to the old ways. Resist that tendency.

Be strong and determined. The new way will become automatised and will become the new habit.

Do not accept the "better the devil you know" argument.

Instead, memorise and use this phrase expounded by Thomas Edison: There IS a better way: Let's find it.

About the Author: Chris Farmer


Chris Farmer is the founder of the Corporate Coach Group and has many years’ experience in training leaders and managers, in both the public and private sectors, to achieve their organisational goals, especially during tough economic times. He is also well aware of the disciplines and problems associated with running a business.

Over the years, Chris has designed and delivered thousands of training programmes and has coached and motivated many management teams, groups and individuals. His training programmes are both structured and clear, designed to help delegates organise their thinking and, wherever necessary, to improve their techniques and skills.

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  • Why do people hate change?
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