Laura Weis, used with permission
Source: Laura Weis, used with permission

Some call it change; others, progress; some, adaptation. Some people are clearly change-phobic, others change-philes. The former prefer steady-as-you-go, predictability, and doing things in the old way. Change-philes love the new, the different, and the state-of-the-art.

Those who love change usually prefer attempting to change structures, processes or systems rather than people. They might be advocates of organizational learning or change management. Though there are those who are really committed to changing people though training, coaching, and mentoring, and they also prefer words like learning and development.

Yes, change is inevitable and faster than ever. We are told, "If you don’t change, you die." Heard it all before. It is very gratifying when some daft, pointless initiative is introduced then quietly removed from the workplace after the inevitable law of unintended consequences snaps into action. And perhaps all that change talk is little more than a plot to keep expensive consultants—pretentiously called “change agents”—from fleecing the company.

Certainly some organizations change more quickly, dramatically, and more easily than others: Compare Apple with the Roman Catholic Church. Obviously it has something to do with their product, their culture, and, most important, their competition.

We all personally know the great difficulty of change. Breaking or changing habits is extremely difficult to do, even if it does not involve addictive substances like nicotine. Diets don’t work because they don’t involve permanent change.

But there are clearly individual differences or dispositional factors associated with change. Some people seem to embrace change, indeed thrive on it, more than others. The young seem happier to change than the old, no doubt because they have fewer habitual responses or less to lose.

It’s not clear whether intelligence and education affect a person’s attitudes to and embracement of change. Certainly it is a reasonable assumption that brighter people should fear learning new things less and see when necessary change must occur. But they can also mount an impressive casuistic and sophistic response to it.

And what about gender and culture? Do the relatively powerless react to change rather differently from those in control? Do cultures with fatalistic religions and values go with the flow more happily than those who emphasize personal responsibility and control?

Psychologists have found several sorts of personality factors that they believe relate to change.

1. Neuroticism/Adjustment. Neurotics are prone to anxiety and depression; they see threat and danger everywhere; they are hyper vigilant for possible threats. To survive the stressful workplace they need manifold and effective coping strategies. Change inevitably stresses them more because they worry more about what it means, what they need to do, to learn and how they will cope. The resistant, hardy, and stable do better.

2. Self-Efficacy and Control. Some people believe they are captains of their own ship, masters of their fate. They (mostly) control their destiny and they are personally efficacious. They are contrasted with fatalists who believe that chance, fate and powerful others influence everything. Those who believe they have control exercise it and cope better.

3.Tolerant of Ambiguity. Some people feel significantly threatened by lack of clarity and uncertainty. They like things to be open, clear, predictable and orderly. Even in a capricious, unstable work environment they strive to avoid uncertainty through the use of rules, regulation and rituals that dictate low behavior: the more comfortable people are around ambiguity the easier it is for them to accept and embrace change.

Recently two Israeli psychologists have worked on a simple measure of personal resistance to change (Journal of Applied Psychology, 2010). They found four factors that predicted an individual’s resistance to (imposed) change at work:

1. Routine Seeking. Many people like a stable routine. They would rather be bored than surprised. They take comfort in their little daily rituals which change threatens to destabilize.

2. Stress and Tension. Any threat to stability can make some individuals experience great discomfort. Any change at work can signal danger, which leads to worry which can, in time, lead to a drop in performance. This again could necessitate more change.

3. Short-Term Thinking. Here people focus on immediate inconvenience and discomfort even if they are aware of long-term benefits; it’s the “jam today” response. The short-term focus is somewhat irrational

4. Cognitive Rigidity. This was used pejoratively to be called dogmatism. It is a profound dislike of changing one’s mind and view.

Most people are (quite rightly) ambivalent about change. Much depends on one’s experience of change and the extent to which it is imposed from above. Equally, possibly even more important, is the person’s attitude to the ‘change agent’—usually senior management. The worst combination is having someone dispositionally resistant to change who also fundamentally distrusts the change agent. But if the messenger  is trusted then  even the most change-o-phobic person will go along with the new rules and regulations.

The moral of the story? Target the resistors of change; work on them and get their trust. It will more negativity and resistance through ambivalence and indifference to the possibility that they will embrace change happily and effectively.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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