Why novelty is fun and change is hard

Posted on August 19, 2011 by

I was having a lovely dinner this week at my favorite Thai place, and thought how lucky I am to live in a region with such a broad variety of food options.  Before you think this is a restaurant review blog, let me shift gears into how this got me thinking more about change.  When I was eating, I realized that I truly do crave change. I wouldn’t want to have to eat the same thing every day, regardless of how good it was.  Variety or novelty is truly the spice of life (as is my favorite Thai place).  So what is the difference between novelty and change?  Sure, we like a routine, but why do we seek out novelty yet struggle when there is change our routine?

Maybe we need to find the really great stuff that makes novelty fun and satisfying, and apply it to the changes that are stressful and difficult?  The source may be in the evolution of the brain. In his book “Your Brain at Work,”  David Rock identities 5 emotional areas in our primitive brain that profoundly affect the way we react to situations and create real stress in our bodies.  They are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relationships, and Fairness (SCARF).  With a little imagination, it’s easy to see how, when living on the savanna, it was important to maintain one’s status in the group, to avoid uncertain situations that could be very life threatening, to have choice over how to approach tasks, to have enduring relationships with other tribe members, and to maintain fair treatment of everyone.

Sure, it makes sense when one is trying to stay alive and avoid being dinner for a lion, but those same primal emotions are still with us. When we face change, we face the same emotional and physical response that our ancestors faced when venturing into uncharted territory.  It was just downright SCARY.  The best response, the best way to stay alive was to dump all sorts of fight of flight hormones into the blood, to increase the level of stress so we could quickly respond to any threatening situation.  This was great then, but not so helpful now.  In today’s world this stress does not help us cope with the challenges we are facing.  Stress causes use to narrow our focus and to close our mind to new ideas.  This is certainly a good thing when trying to avoid a bear, but not at all good when adapting to a new way of doing business.  Equally important, prolonged exposure to stress creates an unhealthy situation.  With too few outlets for that stress, change creates an underperforming and unhealthy workforce.  Maybe we can get someone from Employee Health and Wellbeing to chime in here.

What can we do to reduce the stress associated with change?  Let’s look at how change can trigger emotional responses and the associated stress.

Let’s start with status.  If I am changing the way you do your job there is an implied “you are not doing it right”.  This instantly creates a drop in you sense of status and the corresponding increase in stress.  There are countless other ways that change can impact one sense of worth or status within an organization. The impact is very real, and the physiological response is equally real.  When implementing change take time to consider the impact you are having on people’s sense of worth.  Find ways to reassure them and let them know that they are and will remain an important part of team.

Certainty is probably the most obvious emotional trigger.  Change by its nature creates uncertainty.  When I am uncertain of the future and I do not feel I have control, my primitive brain furnishes worst case scenarios.  This was really helpful when there were tigers lurking in the jungle.  Now, it creates a sense of danger that can be disproportionate to the situation.  This is the kind of stress that freezes people instead of propelling them into the future.  There are two ways to reduce the stress associated with uncertainly.  The first is to communicate the nature and likely affect of the change.  Take away the brain’s desire to paint a worst case picture.  The second is less obvious.  Studies have shown that the stress reaction associated with uncertainty is less in those individuals that feel they have control and autonomy for dealing with the situation.  Create an environment where those affected by the change have a greater degree of flexibility, control, and autonomy.  There is a big difference between being part of a change and have a change done to you.

We touched on autonomy as a response to uncertainly, but change also can undermine a person’s feeling of autonomy and control.  Take the example of a new computer system that enforces business rules that takes away flexibility in the way an individual does their job, or the decisions they can make.  The threat to ones sense of autonomy is very real.  There are four dimensions of autonomy; task, techniques, time, and team.  If the change you are implementing reduces autonomy in one dimension, looks for ways to increase it somewhere else.

Human beings are social animals, and without our social structures we never would have survived Relationships are key to our psyche and loom large when change is on the horizon.  Change can disrupt the interpersonal relationships that develop in a work setting.  We rely on and fundamentally need stable interpersonal relationships.  When implementing change, consider how to minimize the impact of fracturing relationships.

Fairness is the one that really surprised me.  As humans, we need a sense of fairness, and have an acute ability to sense unfairness.  Fairness was a critical aspect of early social environments.  When we sense that we or others are being treated unfairly, it creates a stress reaction similar to those described above.  All too often change appears arbitrary and unfair.  Why is this group being singled out?  To build a sense of fairness, the perceived randomness of the change must be explained.  Provide people with insights into why the change is happening.  Be clear on the intentional nature of the change, and that the outcome may be unfortunate, but not unfair.

So, why is change hard?  Well it seems to me that it hits all five the key emotional stress drivers.  If we think about how to convert stress into positives, maybe we can make “change” look a little more like “novelty”.

I hope my musings on change will fuel discussion about how we can better create change in King County and I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

Written by Chris Reh. Chris is the Be the Difference Program Director.  He is responsible for coordinating activities countywide related to the Executive employee engagement and continuous improve reform initiatives. 

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