If you throw change at your teams, they’ll swerve to avoid it

Years ago, way before I started working with brands, I was a reporter on my local newspaper. Part of my job was to cover inquests.

These are the investigations into why certain types of death have happened – including deaths in hospitals, deaths that happen at work, deaths on railways and on the roads.

What began to surprise me were the number of people who died because they swerved to avoid animals on the road – and in my neck of the woods, that usually meant pheasants.

Something unexpected on the road? Your instinct is to swerve

I used to sit there thinking, “If a pheasant ever jumps out at me, I’m just going to keep going. Sorry pheasant – that’s just how it is.”

But when a rabbit jumped out in front of me one day – I swerved. Despite sitting through all the inquests. Despite being a fairly careful driver. I swerved. And luckily for me, there wasn’t a truck coming in the other direction.

Because when something unexpected lands in front of you, your instinctive lizard brain takes over, pushing your rational, thinking brain down a hole. Before you know it, you’re in the middle of the road, heart pounding, adrenaline coursing, checking the rear-view mirror to see what that thing was.

People like change – so long as they know it’s coming and they have some say in it

I don’t know if behavioural economics has got around to analysing pheasant avoidance yet.

But I do think this pheasant phenomenon has a great deal to do with how most of us react to change.

A lot has been written about change being “scary” and people not liking to leave their comfort zones. There’s a well-established view that “change” as an abstract concept is frightening – and that people prefer predictability and stability.

Yet I don’t see this in people’s lives generally. They try new hairdos, new clothes, new cars, new furniture, new places to go on holiday and new restaurants. When you ask why, frequently the answer is: “I just fancied a change.”

Indeed, if stability and predictability were so important to us all, a lot of our clients would struggle to sell any of their products at all.

Getting people excited by change

I don’t think “fear” is the issue with change. What I see in the workplace is people swerving all over the place to avoid change dropped unexpectedly in their paths.

I’ve come to view this as a basic, primitive instinct when we counter anything unexpected. And that makes change an easier thing to introduce and manage.

Because to stop the swerving, all you’ve got to do is let everyone driving on the road know there’ll be a pheasant at an exact location on the road. Then instead of being surprised by the unexpected, they’ll look out for it. They might even be excited to see it – and to be part of the group of people who saw the road pheasant first.

In corporate environments, that simply means not springing surprises on people.

If you want them to switch to a new IT system, you need to give them plenty of notice that one is going to be on the road in the future. You can make it even less of a surprise by getting your teams involved in designing the new system (or at least have the design teams consult them). Then they won’t just know that it’s on the road – they’ll have helped to put it there.

When we go into workplaces, very often it’s to bring about fundamental change. Ostensibly, we’re introducing a change in communication style – but accompanying and underpinning this is usually a change in the way teams think about their roles, their customers and their culture.

This is all the stuff that’s supposed to be “scary”. Yet we meet very little resistance.

Making change happen isn’t about managing fear – it’s about involving people

Why? Because we don’t think in terms of quelling fear. Instead, we think in terms of pheasants on the road – and we put a lot of effort into setting up awareness of the changes we’re going to introduce. And it’s effort well-invested, because 99% of the time, we don’t get people swerving off in different directions, resisting and refusing to be a part of it.

We work with our clients’ teams to co-design. We get extensive input. And then we let everyone know that the pheasant is going to be on the road in a few bends. When we finally get to the pheasant, we’ve made the road safe. The teams we’re working with are excited about seeing what all the talk and preparation has been about. They want to be involved and be a part of it.

Importantly, because we make sure everyone is expecting it, people can approach the change using their rational brains, able to weigh up what’s in it for them and whether it’s worth getting on board with.

Then they don’t swerve to avoid. Instead, they know something important is coming up, they talk to colleagues about it – and they’re far more likely to accept that there’s something new on the road.

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