I was asked this recently by a colleague.
He added, “And of course, we never truly know what drives the behaviours, unless they tell us.” Well, we know what sorts of things drive them: emotions and feelings, and thoughts and beliefs.
I call this the behaviour cycle, and it’s a basic model used by CBT and other interventions.
And, in truth, we actually know, on the whole, what sorts of emotions and what sorts of beliefs people use to block change.
In his book, The examined life, psychotherapist Stephen Grosz wrote (p 121):
We resist change. Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation. We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even—or perhaps especially—in an emergency.
This was in the context of reports by survivors of 9/11, who had fled the second tower after the plane had hit the first one, that colleagues stayed at their work stations, and even went into meetings, rather than accept that the current situation necessitated a change in behaviour.
In a very real sense, people would rather risk dying than accept that their current situation made them change their behaviour. And, in this case, they did die.
I’d rephrase my colleague’s question, “why don’t some people want to change?” to “why does everybody resist change most or all the time?”
It’s not enough to talk about people not liking being pushed out of their comfort zone. “Comfort zone” is just a metaphorical phrase for “staying the same, having things like they were before”. That’s a truism.
How to be more effective
One cognitive technique that helps is not accepting that, outside the comfort zone, it is all stress and panic. In fact, one can imagine a good region, which I call the stretch zone, which can be a little uncomfortable but which people find challenging and exciting. Only outside that zone is it stressful.
The people going into meetings in the second tower had, of course, been pushed far into their stress zone by seeing an airliner crash into a building a few yards away. They attempted to get back into their comfort zone (and lower their stress level) by recreating the status quo. It was an instinctive response; not a rational one. Others sought a more literal comfort zone by running down the stairs and out of the building.
When I work with businesspeople about why they’re stuck, I talk about fear of the next step. Of course, it’s not fear, it’s anxiety—an important point, since fear is an instinct, and to be welcomed, whereas anxiety is an emotion and therefore capable of being changed, or at least reduced.
But this anxiety about the unknown, which Grosz describes, is real. Anxiety is an emotion, brought on by the cognitive activity of worrying and, I am afraid, in order to get someone to change—say, you’re running a change management project in a large business—you’ve got to engage them at an emotional level. Otherwise, you risk people only paying lip service to the change with the consequent risk of them undermining it later.
As Machiavelli observed (The prince, ch 6):
It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
(Metaphorically and graphically, the challenge to the individual is expressed in the well known scene from Indiana Jones and the last crusade.)