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Where resistance to change comes from (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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I’ve figured out the difference between scientific knowledge and business knowledge. Scientific knowledge depends on facts, logic, and the rigorous testing of ideas in the laboratory and field. Business knowledge depends on the assertion of pet biases with great confidence and exorbitant billing rates.

For example …

By now I’ve read or listened to at least a dozen authorities in the field of managing organizational change. Most begin by explaining that resistance to change is wired into the human brain, natural and instinctive, the result of millions of years of evolution.

As it happens, my graduate studies were in the field of sociobiology, so I’m confident I know more than these “experts” about what is and isn’t hardwired into the human brain. Yes, there is some hard wiring in the human brain. For example, the ability to learn language is a native capability. Bipedal walking is another piece of standard equipment, although the ability to simultaneously chew gum must be learned.

So there is some hard wiring. Not a lot, but some. But no, resistance to change isn’t any of it, nor do people (at least, not those raised in Western cultures; I’m insufficiently knowledgeable about the rest to speak with confidence) resist all change as a matter of learned behavior either.

Want proof? Here’s a simple experiment you can perform in the privacy of your own organization. Offer your employees an upgrade to a piece of core technology they use every day: Buy them a new car of their choosing. You’ll pay for the gas, insurance, maintenance and repairs, and there are no strings attached.

How many employees do you really think will resist this change?

Few people automatically resist change. What’s most commonly mistaken for resistance to change is something quite different: Fear of the unknown.

Most people do fear the unknown. The nature vs nurture question notwithstanding, it’s easy to understand why the unknown is to be feared. Whether you imagine a Toe Monster lurking under your bed, a crazed mugger lurking in some dark alley, or layoffs lurking under the current process re-engineering effort in your company, the possible risks of the unknown — death, destruction and unemployment — outweigh the possible benefits.

Which is why the most useful tools in any change leader’s toolkit are the “Three C’s”: Communication, communication, and yet more communication.

That’s what’s required to change the unknown into the known. If the known is a new car, so much the better. If not, at least employees know the worst that can happen, which is always better than the worst they can imagine.

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