Why People Resist Change

We’re two-thirds of the way through the eating marathon composed of Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. And, as surely as night follows day, many of us are considering our expanding waistlines and the necessity of a diet in the New Year. Just as predictably, many of us will fail in our quest to change our eating habits and keep that weight off permanently. Similarly, in these waning days of the year, our thoughts often turn to the resolutions we plan to make on January 1 regarding the changes we know we need and the great expectations we hope to realize. Unfortunately, we likely will be as unsuccessful next year as we were this year in making radical changes.

Why is change so hard? According to a recent article in Scientific American, from our mid-twenties until our late fifties, we tend to be less open to new experiences and this makes us more resistant to change. As we face the challenges and responsibilities of adult life, our brains seem to prefer the security of stability rather than the chaos that change represents. According to Gerhard Roth,

The brain is always trying to automate things and to create habits, which it imbues with feelings of pleasure. Holding to the tried and true gives us a feeling of security, safety, and competence while at the same time reducing our fear of the future and of failure.

The final nail in the coffin of change is our tendency to have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved. This is known as the “false hope” syndrome in which we attempt more change than is wise or possible, and then fail. No wonder most of us find it so difficult to change.

So what happens when your knowledge management program requires a change in behavior on the part of the lawyers in your law firm? You should assume that you will meet passive if not active resistance. But that doesn’t give us a free pass to avoid change. Since change often is necessary, we need to plan carefully to ensure that the proposed change can be achieved. This suggests that we set reasonable goals requiring incremental (rather than radical) change and that we frame the change in a way that is least threatening to the sense of stability and security of our users.

Incremental change rarely results in banner headlines, but given what we now know about human psychology, it may be the only kind of change that is viable.

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