Many organizations today have Talent Management functions staffed with human resource professionals diligently trying
to attract, train, and retain “talent” (the newish word for those paid to do a job. You know, employees.) An important mandate for these Talent Management groups is “talent development”; growing the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of the talent. Implicit in the term “talent development” is the notion that the “talent” will change their behavior in order to improve their performance levels ideally toward the achievement of organizational objectives. Netting it out, this means inside of organizations there’s a department of employees expected to convince other employees to make serious changes in their lives.
Have you ever tried to break an old habit or start a new one? It’s not an easy thing to do. Now, imagine trying to get someone else to break a habit, adopt a new habit, learn a new skill, use a new software program, or do a task differently than they have for the last umpteen years. That’s the challenge faced by talent developers (otherwise known as corporate learning teams, capability developers, trainers, facilitators, instructional designers, etc.).
This brings us to two essential questions:
1. Why is change so difficult?
2. How can we influence others to change their behavior?
The Trouble with Change
According to David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, breakthroughs in neuroscience prove out what most of us who have tried to change our behaviors already know. Change is painful. It is actually physiologically painful. In their Strategy + Business article titled “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” Rock and Schwartz explain, “Trying to change any hardwired habit requires a lot of effort, in the form of attention. This often leads to a feeling that many people find uncomfortable. So they do what they can to avoid change.”
Another reason change is difficult is a perceived difference between expectation and actuality triggers activity in the parts of the brain that cause people to react more emotionally and impulsively.
“Try to change another person’s behavior, even with the best possible justification, and he or she will experience discomfort. The brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, and the capacity for higher thought is decreased. Change itself thus amplifies stress and discomfort…” –Rock & Schwartz
Have you ever tried to drive on a heavily rutted dirt road? You know the kind where deep tire tracks forged in mud are solidified hard as concrete when the ground dries? Once your tires drop into the ruts; it’s almost impossible to pull them out to drive on smoother parts of the road. Our minds work the same way.
We develop schemata or patterns of thoughts and behaviors for our activities. These patterns make us efficient. When was the last time you had to think about brushing your teeth? You were taught step by step; but as time went on, you grouped those steps into a schema or routine. Now, it’s not something you think about step by step but rather as a single task accomplished almost exactly the same way each time.
Schemata are the ruts in the roads of our minds. Changing our behaviors means fighting to pull our mental wheels out of the deep grooves to which we’ve grown accustom. Even when we get the tires onto flat ground, we still feel uncomfortable and anxious. The discomfort does not abate until we’ve worn in a new set of ruts; built a new schema.
Talent Managers and other organizational leaders should recognize and never underestimate the power of the pain of change. Employees’ perception of the required change and the physiological reactions they experience will greatly impact the outcome.