Stop letting bias get in the way of change

12 Mar 2019 By Chris Dyer

Understanding why people are so cognitively resistant to new ideas is the first step to winning them round, says Chris Dyer

Suppose you were caught on the edge of a cliff, being pursued by an angry elephant. Would you stand and fight? Or jump off into the abyss? If you’re like most people, you’d choose the elephant. When faced with a choice between the known and unknown, humans cling to the information gained from past experiences. This has allowed us to make reasonable projections and act accordingly. But it also makes it difficult for us to accept change.

When you roll out a new initiative or HR solution, you can count on some folks to resist it. It’s easy to write off change-averse people as timid, stubborn or old-fashioned. But you’d be missing out on the why. If you want to get around roadblocks to change, learn why they were constructed in the first place.

The human brain’s creative side may mislead us into thinking that we have the power to dream up novel scenarios or make wholesale leaps of faith. But the truth is, people can only operate from information they already have. We learn new things all the time, but we can only make sense of them based on what’s already in our memory banks.

This is why “the devil you know” – in our case, the elephant – usually wins over the unknown, or whatever lies at the bottom of that cliff. There may be a lovely oasis down there, with a soft mattress to break our fall. But because we know that elephants like peanuts and drink with their trunks, we’re more comfortable jousting with them.

In the office, your co-worker might not know why she doesn’t like the idea of the new HR system. She might not even have liked the old one that much, but she was able to find work-arounds for its bugs. The new one, she supposes, might be worse. Or maybe she thinks the boss has decided she is inefficient and wants to replace her job with automated software. No way is she on board with that.

Assumptions, misinterpretations, fear of what we don’t know... all reasons to resist change come from having too little information. Cognitive bias lets us sidestep the decision-making process by assuming we already know the answer, or by supposing the answer will be negative. Add an emotional element, such as being goaded about her viewpoint by a colleague in the next cubicle, and you’ve got even greater resistance. The antidote, then, must be the accurate presentation of information – and, perhaps, a little smoodging.

Overcoming the opposition

The first step is to remove resistance from the realm of the personal – she is a problem; she’s a Luddite; she hates change of any kind. These are uninformed biases themselves. Placing people in limiting boxes increases the odds of them fulfilling our low expectations. Before individuals can raise their shields, give them the data and guidance they need to understand the what and why of any change to come.

In fact, before rolling out your new initiative to the whole group, approach those with a natural affinity first. Maybe that difficult colleague has a knack for database management. Enlist him to train on the new software first and then mentor the rest of the department when you unveil the system. Let him know that you want to set an inviting tone, to pull others on board and get them up to speed. He’ll be less likely to snipe at others that way.

And remember, what we see as opposition may just be hesitancy. We aren’t all on the same “clock” when it comes to accepting new things. If you know someone considers themselves to be “not tech-savvy”, take some extra time to ease that person into the new routine. 

Relevant information, presented in a diplomatic and positive light, can work wonders to circumvent cognitive biases. What if, as you rushed towards the cliff with that irate elephant at your heels, you read a sign: soft landing and free cookies, next exit? Now you can make a real choice. You can jump, or you can step aside and let the elephant take the fall.

Chris Dyer is a performance expert, speaker and consultant. He is founder and CEO of PeopleG2, a background check company, and author of The Power of Company Culture

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