Change is Really Hard. Really.

For organizations and the people within them to become more self-managing, most organizations must change.  These changes may include flattened hierarchies, distributed decision-making, empowerment programs and the like.  But as noted by Blanchard researchers Pat Zigarmi and Judd Hoekstra, as many as 70% of change efforts fail to achieve their purpose—an overwhelming number.

As the researchers note: “If change is mishandled, the outcomes can be disruptive at best, and disastrous at worst. In some cases, failed change efforts will lead to even more serious trouble, as productivity, morale, and money are wasted on lost causes.”*  Frequently, failed change efforts are eulogized with the observation that ‘people are just too lazy to change.’

A fascinating clue regarding why change is so hard can be found in a recent study cited by Fast Company’s Dan Heath.**  Students have just come into a lab that smells of warm, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.  There is a table with two bowls.  One bowl contains the cookies, the other bowl contains radishes.  Some students are told to eat the cookies but no radishes, some are told (cruelly) to eat the radishes but no cookies instead.  When the researchers leave the room, the cookie-eaters are (unsurprisingly) not tempted to eat the radishes.  More impressively, the radish-eaters refrain from eating the cookies.

The surprising part of the study occurs next.  After a while, the researchers re-enter the room and have all the students work on a logic puzzle, which is unsolvable (although the students don’t know that).  The cookie-eaters persist for nineteen minutes, on average, before giving up on the puzzle.  The radish-eaters, interestingly, gave up after an average of only eight minutes.  What accounts for the difference?

Psychologists now know that self-control is a depletable resource—it’s why people are more snappish toward others after a hard day at the office—and why the radish-eaters gave up quicker.  After focusing excruciatingly on a task or problem (like an intense conversation), we just don’t have a lot of self-control left in the tank.

The effect on change?  In change situations, people are called upon to substitute new ways of doing things for the old.  This takes effort, concentration and focus—all of which deplete self-control.  People desperately want to revert to old, familiar ways of doing things—undermining change efforts.  And, all too often, we flippantly–and incorrectly–refer to people resisting change as lazy.


*Leadership Strategies for Making Change Stick © 2008 The Ken Blanchard Companies


A version of this essay was published at the Morning Star Self-Management Institute website, July 1, 2010.

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