The Nature of Change

It has become so common to hear "change is the only constant" that most of us don't even think about what it means anymore. We just nod -- these new iPhones are amazing, right? Yet the fact is that nature has evolved to prevent or repel most forms of change. As managers in any type of organization, you ignore this at your peril.

The scientific term is homeostasis - maintaining the same state - and it's observable in everything from the smallest cells to our entire planet.

In human beings, homeostasis means we operate within a narrow band of acceptable emotional and social parameters, and most of our social systems have evolved to maintain predictability and order within these parameters.

Corporate workplaces are no different. Yet most leaders or managers of businesses I have met appeared blithely unaware of homeostasis or how powerful it is.

They confidently believed that people will naturally embrace whatever changes they plan. Change is the only constant, right?

Not quite.


Here's Alicia, returning from a retreat in Hawaii, absolutely determined she is going to run her boutique manufacturing firm differently. Her mind is clear from a week of exercise, rest and divinely nutritious food.

She has read books about the changes she wants to make. She envisions how much more engaged and productive her people are going to be, how growth is going to come more easily, and everyone in the company will benefit from it all.

She comes back to work Monday morning determined to start right off with the weekly meeting of her direct reports.

This meeting is now going to be more participatory, not just disseminating information that everyone could get from reading the memos. People will conduct robust strategic discussions instead of checking e-mails and watching the clock.

To start with, they will discuss her strategy for giving employees more incentives to take greater ownership of the company's mission and future.

But when Alicia launches this proposal, people don't want to discuss it. They think the employees are already compensated well enough. Plus, the company is running fine. They don't want to change, don't see a reason to change.

By Monday afternoon Alicia is slumped in her chair, with the phrase

"This is never going to work" buzzing in her mind. Is she imagining it? Or is she actually overhearing people whispering it behind her back? Doesn't matter. Homeostasis has won round one, and it will be ready for every round after that.

This is not Alicia's fault. About 88% percent of our personal goals and resolutions never come to fruition. Entire industries make hundreds of millions of dollars each year coaching people how to lose weight, stop smoking, stop procrastinating.

People say they really want to achieve these goals, yet the results are dismal. Some researchers estimate that 97% of people who do lose weight eventually gain it back. In 2017 the healthcare industry celebrated its highest-ever success with smoking cessation.

Sounds great, until you realize that 9 out of 10 smokers in the U.S. still fail in their initial attempt to stop.

What many organizations fail to take into account when implementing change,what Alicia discovered in her efforts to improve the climate in her manufacturing company, is that resistance to change is hard-wired into the human nervous system.

It's a fundamental principle of nature. Change may be the only constant, and technological change may churn around us, but very little changes internally.

When the Veterans Administration in the federal government made its first big computer change many years ago, it was a good one: switching from the original text-based scheduling system to one that was more visual and intuitive, easier to learn and use. Yet union workers at a major VA facility filed a complaint. Why? They didn't want to change how they were doing things, even if it was better for them.

If you're a leader or manager, how can you wrestle successfully with this paradox?

You move the needle ... slowly ... toward a new homeostasis. This starts with recognizing is that it is virtually impossible to change human nature.

Successful change management works with human nature, not against it.

Early in my work as a psychologist I was trained in using hypnosis to manage chronic pain. With one particular patient, everything went as prescribed.

I led him into a deep hypnotic state and introduced suggestions allowing his subconscious to reprogram long-standing pain signals.

He was thrilled when he came out of hypnosis, marveling at how for the first time in years he was pain-free.

The look on his face said "Liberated!" But as he prepared to leave, he placed his hand on his lower back, his default stance.

Within a mere few minutes, his body returned back to its normal, familiar state, as he verbalized his mental checklist of concerns: bills to be paid, tensions with his wife, repairs for their house. Homeostasis at work.

This observation, along with a host of interactions with other patients, impressed upon me a fundamental lesson. If people are going to make enduring changes, they need to change the way they think about their situation.

This new experience is what enables them to find a new homeostasis, where they can be even more comfortable or productive or happy than the previous one.

This is why Alicia was unable to get her people to buy in to all her new ideas on day one. She had not laid any groundwork for the necessary changes in thinking that would have to accompany her management changes. To her staff, Alicia's new ideas were just that: ideas. No one was experiencing either a need for change or the positives that could come with change. This is a big reason most change initiatives fail.

So as a manager, moving the needle toward a new homeostasis starts with changing the way people think about the present situation.

Start conversations with open-ended questions that get people thinking.

"What do you think could make this process work better than it does now?"

"If we wanted to increase our productivity 15%, how would we do that?"

''Are we satisfied with our incentive system, or could we make it better?"

Once people are thinking along these lines, they're opening up to the possi­bility of a new homeostasis. They're also watching to see if you will lead them toward achievement of these new possibilities, which means you have a golden opportunity to inspire them with a vision of shared accomplishment of something better.


A second thing to recognize is that big fast changes blow up productivity. As anyone can attest who has been involved in rapid organizational changes, one of the first things that goes out the window is getting anything done.

This alone can freak people out and make them rebel. They're still measured on numbers for sales, manufacturing or whatever. If those numbers are going down because of mandatory "change training," people are going to dig their heels in. This alone can lead managers and teams to give up too quickly.

So you're going to go slow and deliberately.

This shows us a third key to implementing change. Change people's experiences. Nothing changes people's thinking more effectively than experience. Albert Bandura, a giant in the field of psychology, demonstrated this repeatedly. People who were afraid of snakes totally changed their thinking, and then their behaviors, when they handled reptiles in a safe, controlled manner.

The VA did this with union employees. After they had the experience of using a more intuitive Windows-based system, their entire thinking changed about learning a new technology.

As a manager or team member, you are not likely to win many converts by bringing a barrel full of snakes into the office for everyone to pet.

You need to make the vision of change so real, so tangible to people that it inspires them to leave the old one behind. You also need to make workers confident that this future will be at least as emotionally comfortable as the current environment, if not more.

This is on you as the leader, because you are asking people to follow you to some place they have not been. Paint the bigger picture at every opportunity, not just with slogans and posters but by actually talking about it. Mention it in meetings.

Ask people for their suggestions about implementing changes in ways that people can take in stride. Compliment and celebrate them for adapting to new procedures successfully.

In the end, all organizations want to reach a steady state of positive energy and high productivity. Moving yours in that direction requires real leadership - not just changing things up on people but involving them in it through their authentic emotional experience.


This will naturally encourage them to adapt to a new form of homeostasis with healthier and more robust dynamics.