Why is change so hard? 3 organizational designers explain how to beat the failure bias

Anyone who’s ever tried to break a bad habit, start working out, or learn a new skill knows that change is hard for all of us. As human beings, we’re wired to love routine. And anything that challenges the tried-and-true is going to face serious resistance.

Nowhere is this more true than when you try to change the way people work.  In fact, a 2008 survey of 3,200 executives around the world found that only one workplace transformation in three was successful.

In other words, we’re stubborn. But change is an integral part of growth—both for individuals and companies. And the only thing that’s guaranteed to happen if you stand still for too long is that you’ll be left in the dust.

So how do we beat the odds and stay relevant, adaptable, and open to change?

To find out, we spoke with 3 organizational designers who have brought meaningful change to companies like Salesforce, Microsoft, GE, and AirBnB.

Why change is so hard (for all of us)

Changing your mind, building new habits, and breaking routines takes energy. Yet our brain is hardwired to try to conserve energy at all costs. So it’s no wonder we’ve developed all these mental biases that influence our behaviors and make us shy away from opportunities—even if we know they’re good for us in the long-term.

First, there’s a phenomenon called loss aversion. Discovered by renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman, loss aversion explains our tendency to keep what we have rather than gain something equivalent.

For example, studies have found that people who lose $100 will lose more satisfaction than another person will gain satisfaction from receiving $100. We value what we have more than what we could have.

Next, studies have found that we have a failure bias wired into our brains. In a series of studies published by the University of Chicago, researchers found that:

“We assume failure is a more likely outcome than success, and, as a result, we wrongly treat successful outcomes as flukes and bad results as irrefutable proof that change is difficult.”

Not only are we averse to losing what we currently have, but we assume even if change is successful that it was a fluke. So why bother?

In a company, the failure bias is especially strong

Now, let’s take those two ideas and look at them in a company setting.

First off, the loss aversion you face at work isn’t just something like $100. It’s your job. The thing that supplies you with basic human needs like safety and security. Risking that for a slightly more productive work environment doesn’t seem like a good gamble for our brains.

And then there’s the failure bias. Think back to the last time someone tried to implement a new process, tool, or structure to your team. More than likely you saw it as a nuisance. You’re busy as it is. And this is just adding to your stress.

So what did you do? If you’re like most people, the second that initiative got behind schedule or didn’t work out exactly as promised, you disengaged from it.

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5 ways to beat the failure bias and stop saying “change is hard”

Failure bias

All this isn’t to say that we should just say “change is hard” and give up. Yes, it’s difficult. But when it comes down to it, our lives—both personal and professional—are nothing but change. Human beings aren’t machines. We’re constantly adapting, changing, and evolving.

So whether you’re reacting to major changes in your industry, you’ve hit a plateau and need to shake things up, or are simply trying to implement a new tool, process, or technique that you think will boost productivity, here are some strategies you can use to help bring change to your organization the right way.

1. Make change a team effort. Not a top-down decree.

When was the last time you felt good about someone telling you to change the way you do things? Even if we know that it’s in our best interest, our inner teenager seems to always rear its ugly head the second we’re told what to do.

In fact, when a group of McKinsey consultants studied companies who had successfully implemented change programs, they found one of the four main factors was something called “Role Modelling.”

In other words, we need to see and get inspired by the actions of others in order to want to change ourselves.

For Sam Spurlin, an organizational designer with New York-based The Ready, this means taking both a “bottom up” and “top down” approach:

“True organizational change requires some personal discomfort. And if you don’t have a leader who’s willing to go there, it’s mostly a waste of time. Even if you go bottom up with a lot of excitement, that can always get squashed by a leader who doesn’t ‘get it’.”

“On the flipside, if you go top down only, you might spend a lot of time with leaders who are invested, but if the bottom doesn’t know what’s going on or believe in it, you’re not going to see real change. You have to do both together.”

When it comes to changes, you need to attack an organization from all angles. While leadership will ultimately give you sign-off, the rest of the team will determine its success.

2. Know what ‘type’ of people you’re dealing with (and act accordingly)

It doesn’t matter the size of organization you’re trying to bring change to, it’s still just a collection of individuals. And one bad seed can kill all the hard work you’re putting in.

Not everyone reacts to new ideas in the same way. And for Spurlin, that means having a deep understanding of who you’re working with. To do this, he places people into four buckets:

  1. Fast Yes: People who are on your team and ready to put in the work to implement change.
  2. Slow Yes: Slightly more skeptical but still open. They’re tougher to bring along but see the value in what you’re doing.
  3. Fast No: The quickest to shoot down change. But this isn’t all bad. Clarity and decisiveness helps move things forward, and these people are also likely to be your strongest supporters (if you can convince them).
  4. Slow No: People you’ll always be unsure of. They live on the fence. And while you think you might be able to sway them, they’ll drag their feet indefinitely.

As Spurlin explains, it’s this last group you need to be most cautious of:

“The Slow No might seem to just fade into the background, but in reality, they leave every meeting and sabotage what you’re trying to make happen. Even worse, they’re hard to smoke out. It’s hard to figure out who they are or if they’re just a really slow yes.

“But the difference is that these people have already made up their mind. You’re never going to win them over intellectually or with data and case studies. And they’re just going to slow down or sometimes even kill your entire process.”

In these cases, Spurlin suggests adding your Slow No’s into pilot groups. This way you can show them value, rather than just try to convince them.

3. Recognize the true cost of bringing in a new tool

True cost of tools

It’s always exciting to bring a new tool you’re excited about to your team or company. But while you might be sold on the benefits, others might only see the costs.

As Curt Steinhorst, author of Can I have your attention? explains:

“Every tool you install on your team comes with a cost. Even if the tool is free, there’s a learning cost, a switching cost, and a possible productivity cost,”

Think about communication tools like email or Slack. According to our own research, knowledge workers check those tools every 6 minutes of the day.

Everyone is overwhelmed. And you’ll have a hard time getting people excited about bringing in even more tools (or even replacing what they have now).

“You’ve always got an awkward transition period where you’re running through communication tools. You’ve got email plus slack and, in large corporations, you probably have more like five or six different things that you’re going to be communicating on,” explains Sam Spurlin.

“People are resistant to the idea of ‘Oh, here’s another thing that I have to check and keep up with now!’”

One way to get past this is to start by removing tools before adding new ones.

“Stopping something and seeing if anything breaks is a totally valuable pilot as most organizations have an incredible amount of organizational debt and no process for removing stuff,” explains Sam Spurlin.

“Someone did something 10 years ago and we keep on doing it and act like that’s normal. It’s crazy.”

When it comes to tools, ask why they’re still being used. Are there good reasons for people to be hesitant to get rid of them? Or is it simply a legacy and no one remembers why it started in the first place? Sometimes you won’t know until you try.

4. Have processes in place to track progress (and show value)

In a lot of ways, change is just asking people to change their habits. And as we’ve written about before, this is never easy.

However, there’s a clue hidden in the science of habits that can help us bring in successful change: The reward. A habit gets formed when we do an action and repeatedly receive a positive result. However, with change, it’s often hard to see the benefits you’re getting in the moment.

As Aidan Healy, Head of Learning and Development at UnPlug, explains:

“If you want to know how your diet is working, you hop on the scale once a week and see if the number has gone up or down. And in the same way, you need to be able to track the behavior change you want to see in the workplace. That’s where RescueTime is so great.”

With RescueTime, everyone on your team can clearly see where they’re spending their time, if new tools are being utilized, and the worst distractions getting in the way of doing more meaningful work.

Rather than ask people to self-report on what they’ve been doing, RescueTime tracks your progress automatically, meaning you get real, unfiltered data on how your change initiatives are going.

Tracking progress this way also lets you check in later and make sure that things are still going how you planned.

“Having a good organizational culture is not something you have to finish but something you practice there. And for us it’s about actually checking in and asking, how is this going? And if it’s not going well, how do we get it back on track? Otherwise, people do things for a couple of months and then generally revert back to the norm.”

Want to empower your team to track their progress and be more productive? Learn how RescueTime for Orgs can help.  

5. Build trust and prime people for success

Change implementation isn’t just a practical exercise. It’s an emotional one. And as studies have found over and over, our emotional brain will always override our rational one.

It’s easy to get caught up in the negatives and looking for every crack in your change plan. However, simply showing people the positive outcomes of their work can be a huge motivating factor.

In one study from the University of Chicago, researchers reminded study participants how most people do in fact successfully improve with a little bit of effort. The results? Participants were quicker to notice changes for the better rather than changes for the worse.

As organizational psychologist, Nick Tasler, writes in Harvard Business Review:

“By priming people with a simple fact about the high probability of successful change, the researchers completely eliminated the negative bias.”

This isn’t always easy in a team setting (as people feed off of each other’s biases). Instead, UnPlug’s Healy suggests taking time to meet with people in a place where they can be open, honest, and vulnerable.

“I always meet people one-on-one because you need to create a safe space for them to open up and be vulnerable.

“Unless you’ve got a high-trust environment, you’re going to bring ideas up and people will dance around the issue or only say a few things. But when you talk to them individually, even just for a bit, you can explain what’s happening, what they personally should expect to see change, and assure them that you’re going to follow up and help them.

“It’s a much more powerful approach.”

Change doesn’t happen overnight

Change is inevitably going to take time. Especially at established or older organizations. But while the massive, sweeping changes might not happen right away, testing and validating ideas in smaller groups is a great Trojan Horse for more meaningful changes.

As UnPlug’s Healy, explains:

“You often see people whose New Year’s resolution is to give up cigarettes and alcohol and eat healthy and do yoga three times a week and sleep more. And what happens? They get overwhelmed.”

While all these tips will help make sure your change has the best change of success. Things will inevitably move slowly. Humans don’t deal well with big changes. And it’s important to stay strong and not get frustrated if the progress is slower than you’d hoped.

Have you ever brought big changes into your company or team? How did it go? Tell us your secrets to success in the comments below or on Twitter

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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